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Vincent Coppola

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Neal Boortz: Have Mouth, Will Talk

Neal Boortz’s feet are upon his desk. The talk radio host sits , munching animal crackers, under a sign that reads WHO ELECTED HER? The jawbone of an ass, a real one, is mounted on one wall, a bright red Soviet flag on another. Photos, off-color signs — HE DOESN ‘T INHALE, HE SUCKS — and goofy posters — Slick Willie, Hooters Guys (a bearded male bimbo holding a plate of chicken wings) are plastered everywhere. This is not an office, it’s a boy’s room and Boortz, all sly grins and mischief, is an overgrown kid, Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, if you will, in the ’90s. “I was your quintessential nerd in highschool,” he says. “A geek.” He swallows a handful of crackers.

“Still am to some degree.” 

Photograph by Jason Maris

No kidding, Neal. How many men driving red Mercedes SLs wear saddle shoes? And harlequin sweaters? How many grown men pose for photos hugging blue airplanes? The answer: It doesn’t matter. Neal Boortz is far and away the most talented and popular radio host in Atlanta, trouncing everyone save occasional slivers of the bubble gum and hip-hop market. He draws more than twice as many listeners as Rush Limbaugh does for WGST, pulls down a salary well into six figures, has advertisers begging to be on his show. And yes, he owns the plane, a Mooney 201.

At night, his acid-tongued, anti-government rant — rebroadcasted as ReBoortz on News/Talk 750 WSB’s powerful 50,000 watt signal — reaches 38 states. The Internet — the Boortz show is carried live — is generating followers, if not fans, from Brooklyn to Moscow. A home page — http://www.boortz.com — gets 150,000 hits a day (16 million in its first year). How is all this happening to a guy who once sold rugs at Rich’s?

”I’m an entertainer,” Boortz says. “Not a journalist or spokesman for anybody. Truth is a lot of my listeners absolutely hate what I have to say.” No kidding, Neal. Talk radio is supposed to be a conservative phenomenon, a crie de coeur from America’s great Gap-wearing, feminine hygiene spraying middle class, those heartland millions who distrust the government and its lackeys in the media. Here’s Boortz playing that violin: “People listen to my show. They hear things that they never read in the newspaper and never see on TV news. And they say ‘Well damn! Why didn’t I read that in The Constitution this morning?’ “

Could he be referring to the following information exchange that took place while Bill Clinton was battling to save his presidency?

Boortz: Why is Chastity Bono wearing a neck brace in Lake Tahoe? She didn’t run into a tree. Could she have smacked into a bush?

Female caller: She got up lickety-split!

Know what talk radio really is? Revenge of the nerds. Remember the kids who were awkward, shy or unfashionable in high school? (Most of us were those kids.) Kids lacking athletic ability or social grace; kids born without a silver BMW in their garage. Kids who went to community colleges, not elitist universities; who bagged groceries at the A&P; who didn’t smoke much marijuana, but inhaled when they did; who joined the ROTC even when the war was over. Baby boomers whose adolescence was not eternal, but fixed; who lived not in mythic, moneyed America, but in another America, a land of endless opportunity — if you were willing to fight and scrimp and struggle up. 

They’re doing quite well now. And they’re mad as hell. Suspicious, scared and resentful of anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

Neal is their paragon. Not Rush Limbaugh, that pudgy crusader who lost his way and a chunk of his audience in a cloud of cigar smoke and bestsellers, who readily surrendered his virtue for a table at the 21 Club; not Newt Gingrich, stymied by the perks and politics of being Mr. Speaker. That’s right, Neal Boortz —military brat, graduate of John Marshall Law School, and Homer Simpson look-alike — is becoming, for god’s sake, an icon.

“Who wouldn’ t want to be Neal Boortz?” says Belinda Skelton, Boortz’s producer. “He gets to play the leading role in a movie every day.” 

To the 500,000-plus men and women who tune into WSB every morning, Boortz is more than mere celebrity. He’s St. George skewering all of Nerd-dom’s dragons , making the big bucks, pounding like the Sixth Fleet on the Power Elite, getting away with jokes and innuendo that would make Lenny Bruce cringe. “If I’m tapping anything,” he says, “it’s the frustration of people who have something to say at work or home or in some social setting and just can’t do it. I do it for them. I don’t take prisoners.”

No kidding, Neal. Last September, during the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral, he fires a wadded piece of paper at the TV monitor in his studio. “Guess what folks,” he shouts. “She’s dead! And she’s not gonna come back to life! Okay! And guess what else? In the grand scheme of things in this world she is relatively unimportant!” He rants on, labeling Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles a “pile of whale squeeze,” Charles a “flounder,” the Windsors inbred cretins, does sound effects (Dodi and Diana having sex), mocks Diana’s interest in banning land mines, then roars, ‘This country is on a water slide to hell, and we’re worrying about Princess Di!”

Funny thing is Boortz was ahead of the curve: The cycle of macabre Di jokes didn’t kick off for another week. Truth is, those high school nerds were really pretty clever and very salacious. Grown-up, they love the lesbian and gay jokes, celebrity bashing, character assassination and sexist balderdash Boortz spoon-feeds them between massive doses of libertarian politics. Neal has gotten so much mileage out of Bill Clinton he should put him on the payroll. His hilarious skewering last spring of Monica Lewinsky (” … in a low-cut dress, her mammary glands flopping around like two sweat socks full of sand”) lit up the phones for hours. 

Boortz, remember, is an entertainer. Like Mickey Mouse, the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, he’s got these brooms and slop-buckets going and can’t tum them off. “Sometimes I just roll my eyes,” says former UGA football coach Ray Goff, a good friend. “I can’t believe what the guy’s saying … about friends of mine.”

Boortz is regularly accosted in restaurants by folks wanting to continue a radio debate, tell a joke, sit down and have dinner. ”I’m flattered by the attention,” he says, “it’s troubling when they try to act upon it.” He recalls sitting in his north Fulton house one afternoon, “when all of a sudden I hear somebody I don’t know screaming for me to come down and engage them in conversation.” It wasn’t an assassin, but a particularly argumentative real-estate woman. 

“These people think they know me,” Bo’ortz says. “They think I’m this writhing, raving lunatic 24 hours a day, driving down the road with my head out the window yelling, ‘Clinton Sucks!'”

Hey! How many Neal Boortzes are out there? 

This one has a personal trainer. He’s into race-walking, a sport guaranteed to vouchsafe his nerd credentials. Hates cats, loves hot-air balloons and airplanes, lives with his wife in the white-flight suburbs, failed his army physical back when Vietnam wasn’t a tourist destination. This guy, says Goff, changes the decor in his house every time he picks up a new furniture sponsor. He lives large: takes ski trips, goes white-water rafting in Colorado, catches the shows at Las Vegas.

He has a good heart: Boortz, an Angel Flight volunteer, uses his plane to ferry cancer and transplant patients to hospitals around the Southeast. His wife, Donna, does volunteer work in hospices; she’s part of an organization, the American Leprosy Mission, that delivers medicine and hope to the afflicted.

Boortz is well-read, hyperinformed. This guy gets up at 5:15 a.m., spends 45 minutes reading e-mail, then races like Icarus across the Internet, scanning the front pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times, Investor s Business Daily. He absorbs the Drudge Report, the electronic rag that broke the Lewinsky story when Newsweek blinked, trolls through USA Today and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Does the same thing all over again at night. “People think I run my mouth for three hours and make a good living,” he says. “Pisses ’em off.”

Take away this guy’s microphone and he’s scared. The old fears resurface and Boortz is once again the shy, gawky outsider, the eternal stranger, uprooted every few years as the Marine Corps played hopscotch with his father’s career. Watch him at a remote broadcast. He’ll talk and kibitz you silly until a commercial break, when the thin line separating him from the flesh-and-blood world crumbles. Then he can act like the main attraction in an Elizabethan bear pit. “Sometimes that comes across as arrogance,” he says. “I hate that it comes across as arrogance.”

The public Neal Boortz wants Bill Clinton impeached. The private Neal Boortz likes Clinton. He’s been with the president on Clinton’s annual Renaissance Weekend retreat on Hilton Head Island. The two have corresponded. “If I was gonna go to The Gold Club and sit there and swill beer and stuff $5 bills into garter belts,” says Boortz, “Bill Clinton would be a great guy to do that with. A marvelous guy.”

Reporter: So you don’t have a moral problem with Clinton?

Boortz: Oh yeah. I think he’s a whore dog.

The public Neal Boortz’s heroes very much resemble the private Neal Boortz. Not nativist yahoos or Dr. Strangeloves, but bootstrap successes like Benihana founder Rocky Aoki. “The guy worked in New York City as a parking lot attendant until he had enough money to buy an ice cream truck,” says Boortz. “He drove it through Harlem. Then opened a restaurant with four tables!”

When Boortz arrived in Atlanta in 1967, he had his folks (his father, a retired Marine, worked at Lockheed) and “nowhere to go.” He had studied journalism and aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, but he landed a sales job at a department store, made the rounds of local TV and radio stations, careful not to let, as they say, the slamming doors hit him in the rear. At Rich’s he rose from hawking jewelry to rugs, became a devotee of WRNG radio’s Herb Elfman. Boortz, desperate as a drowning man for air, bombarded Elfman with calls, read him little scripts he’d scribbled. “One day I’m watching TV,” Boortz recalls, “there’s a story that Herb Elfman has committed suicide. Guess who’s at that station at daybreak the next morning saying ‘You need somebody to do his show?’ “

He hung on until 1974, when WRNG – its 1,000-watt signal a penlight among radio stations — dumped him. Boortz drove to Schenectady, N.Y., won a job with a 50,000-watt station, quit when Donna, his wife, took a look at the place. Back in Atlanta, he enrolled in law school, worked alongside Donna — by Ray Goff’s account the “backbone” of the Boortz family — loading mail trucks until he graduated, went back on the air at WRNG. “Donna,” Boortz says, “busted her rear end to come up with the money to keep me in law school.” 

Boortz jumped to WGST in 1983. Ronald Reagan was king; talk radio sounding its rightwing drumbeat. Boortz, a drum major, pounded away, but was still unable to support himself doing radio: “I’d go to the law office at 5 a.m. and work for two hours, then do the radio show, then grab a hamburger on the way to the law office, then work there till 11 p.m., go home and fall asleep.” 

Along the way, Boortz met a guy pumping gas at DeKalb Peachtree Airport. A guy “no one would give the time of day.” Another outsider named Evander Holyfield. Boortz became the young fighter’s attorney. The job was not without its stresses and Boortz resigned in 1990. ‘Evander Holyfield is one of the finest people I’ve ever met’ is all Boortz has to say on the subject.

No, Don King didn’t eat Neal’s lunch. Those familiar with the situation suggest that leading members of Atlanta’s black power structure — former mayors Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson — arriving late but hungry at Holyfield’s table, decided no right-wing, honkie, talk-show yahoo was gonna represent their champion. Evander’s new lawyer was a black man with Ivy League credentials.

Holyfield, who could not be reached for comment, later sued Boortz and other members of his management team in the aftermath of a failed Subaru dealership investment. “It had nothing to do with representing him as a boxer,” Boortz says. “It was settled and disappeared.”

But the sensitivity surrounding his representation of Holyfield lingers. It emerged during Boortz’s volcanic eruption last year with Mayor Bill Campbell in WSB’s studio — clearly the angriest moment of Boortz’s career.

It began when Campbell walked into the studio after Boortz had attacked him on the air for mismanaging the Atlanta Empowerment Zone: 

Campbell: What’s so sad is how preoccupied you are with me, Neal. You must have a picture of me on your pillow. 

The two spar, shouting each other down.

Boortz: Your credibility is going into the toilet just like your campaign.

Campbell: The last time I ran, you did this same shtick and I only won with 73 percent of the vote. Let me ask you a fundamental question. Where is the Empowerment Zone?

Boortz: It’s over there … 

Campbell (cutting him oft): Don’t stutter ….Where is the Empowerment Zone? How many people live there? 

Boortz: Don’t know.

Campbell: That’s the trouble.

Boortz: You gonna ask me something or you gonna run your mouth?

Campbell: You’ve run your mouth for a long time, so you gonna listen to me today … There’s a news break. After it, Boortz does a recap, then:

Campbell (sarcastically): By the way, Neal, Evander Holyfield sends his regards … We talked a little about how good he’s doing now and the fact he’s getting ready to open up his 57,000 square-foot, $20 million home. How he’s fighting for $35 million a fight. I was sorta thinking about when you were representing him. He was living in an apartment over on Lenox Road. He was fighting for about $20,000 a fight. It’s sort of interesting how your great legal skills have transferred into financial well-being for Evander ….

Boortz (goes ballistic): Hold on! Wait! Wait! Shut the hell up for a second! Mr. Mayor, are you an attorney? 

Campbell: Not a practicing one now.

Boortz: Are you a member of the state bar?

Campbell: I’m still active.

Boortz: I think you’re being an unethical son of a bitch! 

Campbell: Oh, Neal, come on . . . you’re not taking this seriously?

Boortz (shouting): Shut up for a damn minute! I am taking it seriously. When you come on the air and take it upon yourself to talk about my representation of some of my clients, something you don’t know a damn thing about . . . you owe me an apology! … You’re being a real son of a bitch and I want a damned apology!

Campbell: Let me ask —

Boortz: I want a damn apology!

Campbell: Neal, it’s a — 

Boortz: Apologize or leave the studio!

Campbell: You have slammed my character and yet I come on and ask you questions … and now you feel hurt and horrified.

Boortz: You want me to start asking you questions about your private life?

Campbell: I have not talked about your private life.

Boortz: My representation of my clients is my private damn life; it is not a subject of this radio show!

(More yelling.) 

Campbell: I ask you, in the future, to respect the job I’ve done … 

Boortz: I don’t respect the job you’ve done as mayor. I think you’ve been a miserable failure.

(More yelling.) 

Campbell: You are ranting and raving like a lunatic. You’re doing the same thing you’ve done to people over and over and over again. When someone challenges you, you get upset, you lose control … I speak for everyone who’s been gored by your ranting and raving. Stick to the issues …

Boortz: This shows you to be totally without class. 

Campbell: That kind of comment — you think it’s not a personal attack?

Boortz: No, it’s an observation.

Looking back on the episode, Boortz says, “Bill Campbell sat there and wondered whether I was physically going to jump over the table. It’s the only time I’ve ever been on the air that I lost control.” Then, he adds, unrepentant, “There has been terrible, terrible mismanagement of this city by Bill Campbell.” Campbell declined to comment on the exchange.

Boortz’s move to WSB in 1992 was a triumph for him professionally and financially and helped drive a coffin nail into WGST. That was the year when Boortz asked his bosses at WGST for a raise. Intending to give up his law practice, he laid out five years of income tax returns and demanded the station pay him what he was already making practicing law and broadcasting. Once again the prospect of a closing door whacked him in the butt. “They offered me a virtual cut in salary,” he says. When his contract was up, Boortz jumped to WSB. A lawsuit was filed — WGST demanded the right of first refusal — then dropped. The animosity remains. “It’s like what the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto said after he attacked Pearl Harbor,” insists Boortz. ” ‘We have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.’ ” 

Eventually, WGST went into the tank. “PlanetRadio! We beat them 3-1, 4-1,” Boortz chortles. “If they’re a planet, it must be Ur-Anus!” According to the latest Arbitron ratings, now planetless WGST has tumbled to 18th place among metro area radio stations, and WSB, with Boortz, Dr. Laura and Clark Howard, is No.1.

“I’m not shy about talking about racial problems or anything else.” — Neal Boortz 

No kidding, Neal! Last January when Laura A. Lawson, a public housing resident, was named chairperson of the MARTA board of directors, Boortz went ballistic, denouncing MARTA, the welfare system, and Lawson ad nauseum. (“Imagine this woman going to Cobb County and trying to get them involved in rapid transit.”) A month later, he’s still riled up. “She’s on welfare for god’s sake,” he tells a reporter. “She lives in welfare housing. If she’s, by God, so qualified, let her get a job and stop pilfering my pocket!”

Boortz’s personal attacks on Lawson so outraged Lee Haven, editor of the Atlanta News Leader, a black weekly, he wrote an editorial headlined GET BOORTZ OFF THE AIR, asking readers to complain about the Lawson diatribes to Neal’s advertisers. The real problem, insists Haven, is that Boortz’s credibility among middle-class white listeners legitimizes the “real sickos” out there. “Boortz knows better,” says Haven, “but he’s willing to do it anyway. It’s so easy to pick on people who are down already.”

“Aren’t you guys winning?” Haven asks rhetorically. “It’s not enough that you have millions, but I have to have nothing?”

“Nothing I say on the air is the result of animosity or hatred or bigotry or prejudice,” Boortz insists. “It’s honestly-felt opinion arrived at without any of that baggage.”

Another oddity: Neal Boortz has a sizable black audience. Go with him to a ballgame or shopping mall and folks rush over to greet him. Hosea Williams, the old civil rights tub-thumper, treats Boortz like a long-lost soul brother. Listen to the calls pour in — pro and con — when he hits a nerve among black listeners. “There is no black monolith,” insists Boortz. “What there is is a code of silence. Black people agree with a lot of what I say. They’re tired of the civil rights professionals, but they’re not going to stand up in their own community and take the heat.”

See, Neal Boortz takes the heat for black folk. He takes the heat all the way to the bank.

Boortz: What does Ted Kennedy have that Bill Clinton doesn’t have?

Belinda Skelton: I give up.

Boortz: A dead girlfriend. Do you realize how little trouble Mary Jo Kopechne was to Ted Kennedy after she was dead!

In February, Boortz was stirring up WSB listeners with a crackbrained legislative proposal that would allow the use of deadly force against burglars, car thieves, maybe even uninvited real estate women. “If it’s 2 a.m. and you wake up and see some guy walking across your lawn with your TV,” he railed, “Drop him!”

Then he was ranting about an “important national issue” he’d uncovered. Child pornography? Illegal immigrants? No. Involuntary servitude! Well sort of. One of Boortz’s faithful alerted him that a teacher at DeKalb College was demanding that students spend 10 hours a month doing community service work under the guise of service learning! From the stink Boortz made, you ‘d think Karl Marx was selling cabbage at Your DeKalb Farmers Market, in the booth next to Che Guevara: “The sovereignty of the individual is under attack!” he roared. 

A week later he’s still at it: “On Monday, a bill will be introduced in the Georgia Assembly, as well as a constitutional amendment, outlawing a requirement for community work as part of class work in any state-supported school or institution.”

Now Boortz has written a book — The Commencement Speech You Need to Hear — that sold so well in Atlanta a revised edition is being distributed nationally as The Terrible Truth About Liberals. Like all masterpieces of Nerd literature — Rush

Limbaugh’s turgid diatribes leap to mind — Boortz’s work is fueled by frustration with the liberal establishment. “It happened because I started complaining about being in radio for 29 years and I’ve never been asked to give a commencement speech,” he says. “Damn Kermit the Frog has given a commencement speech!” So he gave one — over the air one morning. It proved so popular he added his thoughts on race relations, gun control and libertarianism.

His work is not always so well received. Former Mayor Sam Massell acknowledges that “Neal’s one of the best at what he does. It’s just a shame that there’s not a law against it.” Liane Levetan, DeKalb County CEO, says Boortz has come after her on the air many times. Yet, she says “sometimes he’s had the good judgment to give me credit. When people tell me Neal Boortz is making positive comments about me, I worry a little.”

Such celebrity is not without cost. And talk radio, like nuclear fusion , is not easily controlled. Even more than television’s third wall, talk radio is intimate, emotionally charged, voyeuristic. “I’m in the bathroom with these people,” Boortz says. “I’m in bed with them, taking showers, eating breakfast. This personal relationship gets built up. They think I’m talking to them one-on-one.”

Not a good idea, perhaps, but necessary to keep the relationship — and the ratings — at full boil. In 1984 a Denver talk radio host named Alan Berg so infuriated a band of Neo Nazis, they murdered him. While Boortz’s enemies aren’t that extreme, his program draws strongly felt calls. 

“People tell me I put on some weird callers,” says Belinda Skelton. “Imagine what I don’t put on.” In fact, 90 percent of Boortz’s callers don’t make the cut. “Scary people,” says Skelton, “can make some great radio.”

Until this year, one thing had always eluded Boortz. It was always out there, shimmering at the silvery edges of his consciousness — the one thing the Mercedes-Benz motorcars, ski trips, fawning fans and free-spending advertisers cannot provide. The Holy Grail of talk radio: syndication. “I hear Dr. Laura’s syndication deal brought her $70 million last year,” he tells a visitor who arrives at the end of his show. “Who the hell wouldn’t want to be in the position of having something like that happen to them?”

The truth is, syndication is vindication, proof positive that Neal Boortz has made it to the Show; that he can hit and run with the Rush Limbaughs, the Dr. Lauras, yes, even the Bill and Hillarys.

“I will be syndicated with Clark Howard by the end of the year; ‘ says Boortz. 

“Damn,” he says. “I’d love to see how this dog and pony show would work in Topeka.”

All things considered, contributing editor Vincent Coppola listens to National Public Radio.

A plague of politics

Plague of Politics May 1994

This article was originally published in our May 1994 issue.

The Centers for Disease Control has been reinvented. Once, it was home to a vigorous little band of independent-minded researchers who expanded the agency from a World War II malaria control operation into a potent strike force designed to track down and eradicate infectious disease anywhere on earth. But that was before CDC itself came under the microscope of politics, before it had a billion-dollar budget, before politicians and engineers decided to redefine what constitutes infectious disease, before social agendas were given more attention than social diseases.

In the early years of CDC, teams field-tested Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine; its epidemiologists helped eradicate smallpox and brought numerous Third World plagues under control. Later, agency task forces sounded the alarm on AIDS, solved the puzzles surrounding Legionnaires’ disease, toxic shock syndrome, and last year’s deadly outbreak of hantavirus on Native American reservations in the Southwest. But about a decade ago, the politicians began to move in on CDC. Things may never be the same.

The winds of change swept in under the aegis of the Reagan administration when the CDC director became a political appointee. They continued to blow through the Republican ’80s and now into Bill Clinton’s chunk of the ’90s with the appointment of Dr. David Satcher, president of little-known Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

The first evidence of political meddling at CDC came in 1980, in the aftermath of a study of aspirin’s effect on children; the most recent when CDC scientists determined urban violence was a disease and decided to find a way to vaccinate society against it.

In 1980, five separate teams of medical researchers turned up evidence that aspirin given to children recovering from flu or chicken pox could trigger Reye’s syndrome, an often fatal illness. Statistically, none of the studies was conclusive; taken together, the evidence was overwhelming. In Atlanta, William Foege, director of the Centers for Disease Control, rushed to publish a warning in CDC’s MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report), an influential newsletter circulated to public-health offices, hospitals, and medical professionals around the country.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers, fearing lawsuits and loss of profit, moved faster. They insisted the research was inconclusive, lobbied the FDA, promised new information was forthcoming (there was none), warned CDC its vaunted reputation would be ruined. Weeks went by as Foege slogged through the bureaucratic morass. When Secretary of Health Richard Schweiker backed CDC, Foege went ahead and published the reports, believing he’d won. He was wrong. “The aspirin manufacturers got to the Reagan White House,” he says. Five years would pass before warning labels were put on aspirin bottles.

Dozens of innocent children died because of the delay. No one realized it at the time, but CDC had been infected with a debilitating disease: a plague of politics that would spread unchecked for a decade. Minorities and women suffered, then the poor and outcast. And finally, the agency’s own researchers. It metastasized into many forms­—the politics of AIDS, pressure groups, party affiliation, the religious right, race, gender, correctness, diversity—but its focal point was the CDC director’s office, where politics would twist public health policy decisions again and again.

After Foege, the CDC directorship became a de facto political position, in retrospect a disastrous departure from the independent-minded researchers who’d guided the agency from its modest malaria-control origins.

The line separating political appointee from partisan ideologue proved thin. Even though the agency came under the authority of the Department of Health and Human Services in the early ’70s, the pressure on the CDC didn’t begin to build until after Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. It came from conservative right-to-lifers who’d helped sweep the Republicans into power. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a pro-lifer (he would later incur right-wing wrath for promoting condom use as a protection against AIDS), visited Bill Foege in Atlanta. CDC routinely monitored death and illness associated with abortion. “I told him,” remembers Foege,

“‘No matter what else we talk about, abortion will come up. Why don’t we get it out of the way?’” Koop demanded the right to review first drafts of abortion studies “for scientific credibility.”

Scientific credibility was quickly strained. “Every one of the surveys [on sexuality] we tried to get going was canceled,” says Dr. Mary Guinan, then a researcher in the division of sexually transmitted diseases. “They didn’t want to know about pregnant women with HIV infection because someone might choose to have an abortion. We’re talking about preventing AIDS in children, and they didn’t want to deal with it?”

When Dr. James Mason, a Mormon and close friend of Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, was named director in 1983, politics moved inside CDC’s walls. Mason, a willing instrument of the conservative ideology being trumpeted in Washington, quashed research on abortion and the efficacy of condoms—information, given the context of the escalating AIDS epidemic, that might have saved thousands of lives.

Through the ’80s, politics clearly delayed the nation’s mobilization against AIDS, contributed to the government’s head-in-the-sand approach to safeguarding the nation’s blood supply (a debacle that resulted in 6,000 transfusion-related AIDS cases), and escalated the continuing war of words over condoms, birth control, sex education, needle exchange (to protect IV drug users against HIV), Agent Orange, credit for discovery of the AIDS virus, and other controversies. All too often CDC research was ignored or twisted in the process.

Dr. William Roper, an ambitious Alabama health officer who rose to head the White House Office of Health Policy Development, became director in 1990; he was a personal friend of George Bush and kept on his spotless desk a red telephone that staffers joked was linked directly to the White House. High-profile and well-connected, Roper increased CDC’s budget, changed the agency’s name to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hired hundreds of new employees, and continued channeling resources into so-called behavior-based problems, such as occupational safety, chronic illness, and injury prevention.

Unfortunately, say CDC insiders, Roper was careful to distance himself from “no-win” issues, particularly the bitter controversies swirling around the federal government’s response to AIDS. An odd thing for a man whose public-health agency spends more than a quarter of its budget battling an epidemic that has already killed more than 200,000 Americans.

In 1993, Roper was undone by the same hardball politics that had elevated him. Bill Clinton’s men fired him and appointed Dr. David Satcher. Significantly, Satcher is a good friend of Vice President Albert Gore. In his first address to CDC’s 7,000 employees last fall, and in public statements since, Satcher stressed the importance of combating social ills like teen violence and drug abuse through outreach programs and community networks. “Partnership with schools, churches, and community organizations,” he said, “can really get out there and contact the people we need to reach.” It remains to be seen whether the speech—which has become the centerpiece of Satcher’s agenda—will prove a clarion call for a culturally diverse, more effective CDC, or a stale restatement of Democratic Party rhetoric.

Even with good intentions and strong guarantees from Washington, the 53-year-old Satcher has his work cut out for him inside and outside the agency. A no-nonsense administrator who saved financially troubled Meharry Medical College by forcing through a merger with a Nashville hospital, Satcher must try to get a handle on a bloated agency infamous for its lax management.

CDC works because it is driven by a staff of highly educated and idealistic epidemiologists and researchers. Hardcore CDC cadre still carry keychains decorated with miniature kegs of Watney’s Red Barrel beer, a reference to London’s John Snow Pub, named for a pioneering 19th-century epidemiologist who tracked a cholera epidemic to a water pump near where the pub now stands.

Behind the faceless buildings on Clifton Road and the forbidding maximum biological containment laboratory, CDC is the most public of government agencies. Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers scattered around the country track down outbreaks of measles, whopping cough, TB, syphilis, gonorrhea, HIV, and other infectious agents. They poke into restaurant food poisoning and people’s bedrooms with equal zeal. (Many diseases can be sexually transmitted.)

Unintentional injuries resulting from bicycle spills and car crashes and house fires are targets of CDC investigators, as are chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, by far the leading causes of death in the United States. A CDC team was on the ground in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, painstakingly gathering or reconstructing information—opinions, preconditions, flash points (negative attitudes toward Korean merchants for example)—that might help defuse or predict future upheavals.

Staffers are overworked and underpaid, but CDC has been a place where JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” challenge still echoes in the corridors. An esprit de corps, all too often missing from government and the private sector, has always defined the agency.

Here, too, years of political meddling and destructive in-house competition have taken a toll. “Ten years ago you could walk in and ask anyone, even the maintenance staff, what CDC’s mission was,” says Dr. Joyce Essien, a former CDC program director now at Emory University’s School of Public Health. “There was a sense of family, of purpose, a clarity as to what one’s contribution could be. Today, people are just doing a job.”

Essien, who holds both M.D. and M.B.A degrees, learned her CDC laboratory program was being dismantled and her position essentially terminated as she was about to receive an Equal Employment Opportunity award in front of a crowd of cheering employees. “It was not an atypical kind of incident,” she says bitterly. She spent the next six months opening mail for her new boss.

Morale plummeted when conservative ideologues in Washington demanded that Dr. Ward Cates, head of CDC’s abortion surveillance program, be fired because he published findings that abortion was essentially a safe medical procedure. Cates was spared, then assigned to study sexually transmitted diseases. Other researchers were asked to provide studies that could show a link between birth control pills and cancer.

Dr. David Grimes, now a professor and vice chairman of the department of OB-GYN and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and other CDC scientists were driven away, their politically unpopular (i.e., abortion-related) work suppressed as unsound. “There was even an attempt to get scientific evidence that showed condoms didn’t work,” remembers Dr. Guinan. “The thinking went, ‘If it’s only 99 percent effective, then how can you give them to kids?’”

With the onset of AIDS, the “Just Say No” posturing and political pandering became criminal. “They dealt with sex as a moral issue,” continues Dr. Guinan. “You don’t want to ask children if they’re having sex? Well, they were having sex. They were getting pregnant. The reality is there are health risks associated with sex. And we, as public officials, needed to advise people how to protect themselves from fatal illness.”

In the ’80s, as CDC expanded into a bigger, more complex and entrenched bureaucracy, other problems developed. As of this writing, CDC has lost its authority to hire employees. It was suspended last year after the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) uncovered a “total breakdown of staffing operations.” A report cited hundreds of violations, including the appointment and promotion of unqualified or preselected candidates, sloppy record keeping, and other abuses.

“There was no rhyme, reason, or rationale as to the way people were selected,” says regional OPM director Ronald Brooks. “There have to be guarantees that the best applicant gets selected rather than somebody’s friend.”

In private, some CDC administrators play down the OPM charges as “overblown,” a result of the agency’s rapid growth. Since 1990, CDC staff jumped 15 percent; its budget grew almost 50 percent to more than $2 billion. “The violations have been documented,” says Satcher. “So, it is, in fact, very serious. I also think there’s a serious commitment to correct the problems. I guarantee there is.”

Women staffers are frustrated by a good-old-boy network they say routinely fills senior positions with males. Black employees have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination in hiring, promotions and training. Blacks make up nearly 40 percent of CDC’s employees but less than 9 percent of its managers.

“People ask me if I think there’s a glass ceiling for women and minorities at CDC,” says Mary Guinan. “It’s cement!” Guinan, an 18-year CDC veteran, is no disgruntled employee. She was one of the epidemiologists depicted in last year’s HBP blockbuster And the Band Played On. Her tenure as CDC’s associate director for science from 1986-87 made her the highest ranking woman ever to work at the agency.

When pressed about such inequities, Satcher’s hard-nosed side emerges. “The people advising me,” he says, “will not be part of the problem. I want policies and procedures at CDC to be so clearly defined and so well carried out that when I violate them, my actions will indict me.”

Bearded, bespectacled David Satcher grew up on a rural Alabama farm with eight brothers and sisters. He barely survived a childhood battle with whooping cough and went on to earn a PhD in chromosome genetics. His folksy manner and easy reminiscences don’t hide the steel in his personality. Satcher, a Black man, appreciates the link between public health and social justice. Overwhelmingly, it is minorities and the poor who go unvaccinated, who are victimized by everything from violence to tuberculosis and malnutrition. A pillar of public health theory is that it can address this imbalance.

“You don’t take a position like this and then find out where people stand,” Satcher says, acknowledging the pressures that come with the job. “You have to be confident that the assistant secretary for health, the secretary, and the president are all committed to allowing CDC to function as it should function—beyond political, cultural and religious differences. If I were not confident, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”

Given the pervasive, even intrusive scope of CDC endeavors and the scientific certainty with which its pronouncements are made, it may only be a matter of time before those whose verities are moral, religious, or political again try to throttle the agency.

Sex is once again the lightning rod. In January, CDC launched an $800,000 campaign promoting condom use to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The ads included a TV spot that depicted an animated packet of condoms jumping in bed between a writhing couple and another containing the following exchange between an overheated, hastily undressing young man and woman: “Did you bring it?” “I forgot it.” “Then forget it!”

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said the ads were long overdue. “What we have lacked until now is the political will.” But within days, the Family Research Council, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a raft of conservative commentators had begun lambasting CDC, Shalala, and the Clinton administration in radio spots, editorials, and op-ed page blasts.

“We want a balanced message,” says Shepherd Smith, president of Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy, a middle-of-the-road organization. “A tiered message beginning with the optimal medical message of abstinence, which is prevention, going down to the least optimal, which is risk-reduction message involving condoms.”

Smith attended a meeting in Washington where the controversial ads were prescreened. “I didn’t consider them balanced,” he says. “Each speaker got up and said abstinence is the best message, then went on to speak about condoms. There was absolutely nothing on decent refusal skills, nothing on negotiating sexuality. It was all done on the assumption that kids are going to be sexual and therefore have to put on a condom.”

In Atlanta, the Reverend Gerald Durley, president of the Concerned Black Clergy, argued the CDC’s campaign not only doesn’t say no, “It says, ‘go ahead.’” Other conservatives blamed Shalala for the ads, an eerie restatement of liberal complaints during the Reagan and Bush administrations. In February, caught off guard by the virulence of the response, Shalala wrote a letter to friendly newspapers—including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—thanking them for their support in the condom campaign while at the same time stressing that “young adults need to know that the surest way to prevent AIDS is to refrain from having sex. That is a message we, as health educators, have a commitment to emphasize.”

“We’ve moved into a much more public arena,” says Dr. Mark Rosenberg, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “From doing scientific research to being responsible for applying that research to real-life problems. AIDS is a highly politicized issue with very strong interests on one side or another. You’re not gonna keep the politicians’ hands off.”

To counter that (and the pressure of special-interest groups ranging from the radical AIDS activists of ACT UP to the conservative Family Research Council), CDC is attempting to form outside alliances. “It is much easier to do research and remain apolitical than it is to put prevention programs in place,” continues Rosenberg. “They may require legislation or regulation. The money needed for such programs is much larger. This forces us to have alliances with community and other advocacy groups.”

Somehow, the agency must also come up with the right combination of human resources—psychologists, social workers, counselors, etc.—to operate effectively in the target communities. “Given the mission of CDC,” says Satcher, “and the populations with which we must deal effectively, diversity is critical to the success of our program.”

Over the last months, Satcher has been emphasizing the challenge of a disease that is stealing years of productive life from millions of Americans. A disease that is in many cases more deadly than any infection: violence.

Not surprisingly, violence has roared to the top of the political agenda, displacing healthcare reform. After a series of horrifying murders last December (six New Yorkers killed and 17 wounded on a commuter train; three workers and a police officer murdered in an unemployment office in California; four shot to death in a pizza parlor in Denver; a school superintendent murdered in Michigan), President Clinton declared in a national radio address that the country was in the grip of an “epidemic of violence.”

Statistics support what every citizen knows in his heart. In the United States, violent crime increased 560 percent between 1960 and 1991. Murder jumped 170 percent; rape, 520 percent; aggravated assault, 600 percent. For teenagers the risk of being killed by a firearm has jumped 77 percent since 1985.

In Georgia, and surely the rest of the country, only 25 percent of the population believe the federal government’s crime-fighting efforts are moving in the right direction. In Washington, a new task force is scrambling to coordinate anti-violence efforts underway within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Justice, and Education.

David Satcher and his cohorts believe CDC can help control the wholesale slaughter by applying the same techniques that have worked so effectively against most killer micro-organisms. “Violence is a problem for which you can identify precursors, preconditions, or risk factors that more likely lead to it,” he says. “You can develop strategies, monitor the outcome.”

At its best, CDC works painstakingly, its epidemiologists like good detectives examining tens, hundreds, even thousands of cases, looking for patterns, then scientifically determining causes, risk factors, interventions, conclusions. A tremendous problem with children poisoning themselves disappeared after research led to introduction of childproof packaging. The cost-to-benefit ratio of smoke detectors turned out to be 1-to-20. Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of serious head injuries by 85 percent.

The research on homicide is even more interesting. Most people feel that violent death most likely awaits them in carjackings, muggings, or convenience store crossfires. In fact, studies show most murders involve no other felony. It’s mostly people who know each other who are arguing, drinking, escalating, and Bam! Somebody’s dead. “More police,” says Rosenberg, “is not going to do anything about arguments in the home. . . . The question is not, ‘Are we going to address firearms as a public health problem?’ but ‘How are we?’”

CDC critics, including the National Rifle Association, have complained that gun control is not a public-health problem, that the agency is neither objective nor scientific, just anti-gun.

“We took firearm injuries away from the political, philosophical debate and put it on scientific ground,” counters Rosenberg, who began working in CDC’s violence epidemiology branch more than a decade ago. The research is shocking: If you keep a gun in your home, for every time it is used to kill an intruder, it is used 43 times in a murder or unintentional homicide or suicide of someone who lives in the house.

“Our response to gun control is not all-or-none,” says Rosenberg. “We didn’t have to ban cars to make them safer. We can change behaviors, modify the environment. Reduce the number of guns, control access to them, how they are stored and carried, do away with automatic weapons.”

Violence and risky sex are behaviors that may prove more resistant than any virus or bacteria, embedded as they are in the American psyche, reinforced as they are in broken homes, on street corners, and in the virtual reality of video and movies. Violence is more prevalent in America than alcoholism. Homosexual men may have reduced their risk of exposure to AIDS by modifying their sexual behavior, but the population of young heterosexual males David Satcher is targeting has been especially resistant to other public health messages.

The problem may lie beyond the reach of the CDC’s determined epidemiologists. There is increasing evidence of a genetic link to aggressive behavior. Broken homes, broken families, deprivation, drugs, and poverty may alter the balance of chemicals deep in the brain and trigger aggression. These are highly charged issues. Recently, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s singling out a violent subpopulation he labeled “Bad Black Brothers” triggered a backlash among some African Americans worried about the dangers of negative stereotyping.

In leading CDC, David Satcher must be sensitive to these and a thousand other issues. He must be aggressive and thick-skinned, political but never partisan. “We’ve got to continue to reinvent ourselves,” he says. If CDC doesn’t, there are a lot of folk out there who will.

Vincent Coppola was an Atlanta magazine contributing editor.

This article was originally published in our May 1994 issue and reprinted in our January 2021 issue.

The Parable of Julian Bond & John Lewis

My father got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He taught at a succession of black colleges. He was president of Fort Valley State College, president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, dean of education at Atlanta University. [At Lincoln University,] we had this great big old white house like a Southern plantation house. In our home were all the great figures of the day. I have a picture of me sitting on Paul Robeson’s knee while Robeson sings to me. I have a picture of Albert Einstein. It was just an incredible life for a kid. . . . I never really knew what a segregated school was until high school. At George School [a Quaker institution in Pennsylvania], I started dating this white girl from Virginia. . . . We’d go into Philadelphia on Saturdays or Sundays, then get back to school around 6 or 7 in the evening. Then one afternoon, the dean of men called me into his office. . . . He looked like a tennis player or a country club golf pro who had just begun to age. He told me, in a very calm and polite voice, that he’d appreciate it if I didn’t wear my school jacket on those trips to Philadelphia. It was just as though he had slapped me across the face. All of a sudden, you realize all the talk there’s been, all the whispering. . . . And also that you’re a Negro. That moment was the first time I realize realized it—that distance. . . . I simply couldn’t speak anything to him. I just stood up and walked out of his office.
Former State Sen. Julian Bond, from separate conversations with Marshall Frady and Vincent Coppola

My father couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription. I’d walk half a mile to get my grandfather’s paper after he got done reading it. I kept up with what was going on, reading that paper and listening to that radio. . . . We ordered everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. We called it ‘the Wish Book.’ . . . I was bused 18 miles to the Pike County Training School. Black schools were ‘training schools’; whites went to high schools. We had old broken-down buses, ragged books, a rundown building. White students had new buses, nice painted buildings with the grounds kept up. . . . In Troy, they had a soda fountain where you could get Coca-Cola. We called it a combination. A black person could not take a seat. We had to stand at the end of the counter. ‘May I have a combination?’ You put your money down and went outside to the street corner to drink it. . . . As a young child I saw a difference. I resented it. Even the country road where I grew up—because black people owned the land, the road was left unpaved for many, many years. When it rained, the bus got stuck in the mud. That was life in Alabama.
—U.S. Rep. John Lewis

 

John Lewis and Julian Bond. Two men whose lives were shaped in the crucible of the civil rights movement, whose beings were transformed by the soaring energy and ringing eloquence of the man who came to symbolize that movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and whose major roles have been played out in the cold vacuum of his absence. Men whose youth was spent amid heat and tumult, roaring debate, clangor and public outcry, who now in their 50th year are trying to come to some assessment of themselves, to reaffirm or refix the stars that have guided them. Private men who live intensely public lives. Men so different as to be from other worlds, yet inextricably entwined. Bound at first by the color of their skin, and again by the essential rightness of their participation in the movement. Bound by friendship and the common struggle for human dignity.

Over time, they drifted apart. In 1986, they became rivals, then bitter enemies as they each sought the 5th District congressional seat; each struggle to wrest a prize that shimmered with grail-like significance. Bond, the long-anointed prince—a national figure in his 20s, the first black man ever nominated vice president by a major party—would find ascendancy in victory. Congress would be the field upon which his brilliant mind and intellectual passions would play. Lewis, the sharecropper’s son, would take his dogged, determined pursuit of the Beloved Community to the national arena.

John Lewis won. Today, he works out of the Cannon Building on Capitol Hill in an office hung with movement memorabilia, including an almost-autobiographical voter registration poster. HANDS THAT PICK COTTON NOW CAN PICK OUR PUBLIC OFFICIALS. There is also a harrowing, March 1965 LIFE magazine cover, “The Savage Season Begins,” showing Lewis and Hosea Williams—leading the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—about to be overwhelmed by tear gas, mounted police and swirling clubs. Gone are the overalls and the speech impediment that once muffled his words, but never his eloquence. John Lewis now favors dark suits and muted ties; he displays the beginnings of a paunch. The big, rough farmer’s hands are there, and they speak of a lifelong commitment to “tearing down barriers.”

Julian Bond lost. He, too, lives in Washington, D.C., but carries his office in a nylon book bag on his shoulder. This spring, he’ll be criss-crossing the country, speaking at colleges, recalling the movement years. Last fall, Bond taught a popular civil rights course and a seminar on Southern black politics at Harvard University. Observed there, crew-cut, slender, dressed in a light-gray suit with a turquoise shirt buttoned at the collar, he looked more like a fashion model than an academic. His voice—described by the Saturday Evening Post’s Marshal Frady as “textured, it seemed, of flannel”—was as powerful, distinctive and resonant as King’s or Kennedy’s. A masterful teacher, Bond pointed out inconsistencies in his students’ analyses, provided insights and “I was there” actualities. He held them in thrall, an elegant, ephemeral piece of history.

Bond watchers say he is history. The youthful promise he sustained like some middle-aged Peter Pan will never be realized. Julian Bond, they say, could have been Andrew Young or Jesse Jackson. Opportunities stretched endlessly before him. This telegenic man who hosted both Saturday Night Live! and Eyes on the Prize. He could have been the first black vice president, even president. He could have been the voice of a generation of Americans of every color and social class. They say the allegations of cocaine abuse, bruited (and then retracted) by wife Alice, and the subsequent media circus, signaled the destruction of Julian Bond the public figure. (He has never admitted to using drugs, nor has he been charged in any drug-related incident.) Bond has fled Atlanta, they whisper, his life a tatter of ruptured friendships and disorder.

“I love Julian like a brother,” says John Lewis. “But he fumbled the ball. He had unbelievable opportunities. He just didn’t take advantage.”

Bond, sitting after class in an office in the Afro-American Studies Center, lights a Salem and dismisses—though not without bitterness—the scrutiny of his personal affairs. “I had 13 reporters assigned to me. You feel awful about it, but really, what can you do?” (Things had gotten chaotic. At one point Alice Bond filed charges against Carmen Lopez Butler, alleged to have been Bond’s girlfriend, for hitting her in the head with a high-heeled shoe. Lopez was later convicted of drug dealing.) “It’s the price you pay for being public,” he says. “And you pay it sooner or later. You just try—and I’m determined—to keep going.”

The issue of promise measured against achievement is less easily dismissed. “I’ve been cursed most of my life with this picture of the hesitant person,” Bond says. “I think I’ve been kind of bold. . . . I can’t do what other people want me to do. I’m absolutely content and fulfilled right now [teaching and lecturing]. It’s enough for me. I’m confused as to why it’s not enough for anyone else.”

 

Given the religious framework upon which the civil rights movement was built, it would be easy to seize upon the Bible story of the servants, one of whom took the talent entrusted to him by his master and multiplied it while another kept his buried, as a metaphor for the personal and career odysseys of Lewis and Bond. Life is much more complex—a thousand decisions and indecisions, strung together by twists of fate and fortune. The outcome always uncertain. “Here I am teaching at Harvard without a Ph.D.,” says Bond. “I think I’m doing really well.”

Others say the twin tales of John Lewis and Julian Bond teach more secular lessons. “Julian Bond was spoiled,” says one prominent Atlanta politician. “He indulged himself. I can remember sitting with him and Vernon Jordan and having some discussion. And Julian’s eyes got to wandering. He wasn’t interested in what we were talking about.”

“One of the things the civil rights movement showed every man,” adds Stanley Wise, a former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), “was that a wealth of women of every race, class and description were completely at your beck and call. You had to fend them off in every city, village and farm. You kept bumping your head so hard and so often against this wall. It was impossible.”

Time magazine called John Lewis ‘a saint,’” says Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). “I never heard anybody in the black community say that. . . . John Lewis gives the appearance of humility. I don’t know whether he’s humble or not, but white folk think he’s humble. And white people tend to like humble black folk.”

 

Looking back at their youths and the times that rounded their passage into maturity—talking to them and to those who knew them or marched beside them—it seems clear that the paths taken, the choices made, and the lives lived by John Lewis and Julian Bond were as preordained as Calvinist theology.

“The movement became a way of life, a part of me. Even if I wanted to separate myself, it would be difficult.”
—John Lewis.

The third of ten children born to sharecropper Eddie Lewis and his wife, Willie Mae, John Lewis was out in the blistering Alabama fields at age 4, picking cotton, gathering peanuts, pulling corn. The family survived on the leavings after their white landlord deducted his rent in cash or crops. They lived in “Carter’s Quarters,” a tract that had been home to Willie Mae Carter’s family since slavery days. Ironically, it was just a few miles from where John Lewis’s great opponent, Gov. George Wallace, was raised.

Lewis was a stubborn, willful child. Some days when his father wanted him out in the fields, he’d get up early and hide under the house. “When the bus came I would run out and get on and go to school. I did that many, many times.” He looked after the family chicken flock with evangelical zeal, preaching to them in the evenings, even baptizing a couple of birds. “My first nonviolent protest,” Lewis says, “was against my mother and father when they wanted to kill some chickens or trade ’em to the rolling store for flour or sugar. Sometimes I’d take an egg from one hen and give it to another. I was never able to save the $18.95 to buy the cheapest incubator in the Sears & Roebuck catalog.”

Somehow, his father scraped together $300 to buy 110 acres, land precious enough to John Lewis that he still trucks over fruit trees and flowers from Pike Nursery in Atlanta to plant there. At the time, Lewis felt otherwise. “I saw the life of my mother, my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather had lived. I’d argue with my father. ‘Why go through this year after year?’ My mother would say, ‘Why, Robert [Lewis’s middle name], this is the only thing we can really do. It’s what we go to do.’ My desire was to get away from that. To do something better, but I didn’t know what.”

The fact that his parents’ hopes were clouded by discrimination gnawed at Lewis. “In 1951, I went by car with my uncle and cousins to Buffalo, N.Y. I remember going into Sattler’s department store and riding escalators for the first time. It was a different world. You saw white and black people in the same shops and restaurants.” Back in Alabama, the treat of an occasional Saturday matinee with his cousins soured: “We had to go upstairs to the ‘Buzzard’s Roost,’ the section marked ‘Colored.’ To this day, I don’t like going to movies because of what I saw.”

Over the crackle and static of the old vacuum-tube radio, Lewis heard the rolling thunder and reasoned passion of Martin Luther King’s sermons as King led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. He felt a stirring in himself, “a calling, an obligation . . . to this holy, righteous cause.” His mother, then working as a laundress in a white Baptist orphanage, brought home a newspaper article about work scholarships being offered Negro students by the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville. He was accepted in 1957, “and left home with this huge old trunk and $100 my Uncle Otis Carter handed to me,” he says. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live. It was the first time I had $100 solid in my hand.” His father took him to the bus station. John Lewis submitted to riding in the back of the Greyhound to Nashville.

Lewis worked as a janitor and spent hours in the seminary kitchen “washing those big pots and pans.” He began hitching across the Cumberland River to attend evening workshops on the philosophy and discipline of nonviolent protest, conducted by a man who would have a seminal influence on him—James M. Lawson Jr.—a black graduate student and Gandhian disciple who had spent three years in India. Over the next few years, the workshops blossomed into demonstrations against Nashville’s segregated department stores and restaurants.

Lewis was always in the first ranks, taking incredible punishment, as if he believed his blood could somehow expiate the flaring hatreds. “He thinks it’s possible to change the world,” says former SNCC secretary Stanley Wise. “He didn’t start off that way. He thought it was possible to change one restaurant or one voting pattern. At some point he began to believe the world could be changed through nonviolence. Therefore, you had to live that life. John Lewis decided to live free, regardless of whether he was free or not.”

Wise recalls his first, unfortunate meeting with Lewis: “I was 19, a student at Howard University. I arrived in Nashville with students from Georgetown and other D.C.-area schools. . . . There was a restaurant four or five blocks from Fisk University. About 90 of us marched over there. There was a giant white fella—must have been 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8—a really husky dude. People would up to the door and attempt to enter. As soon as you grabbed the door, he would let go with all his force against your head. Kapow! It was just absolutely unbelievable.

“One of the group was a girl who had had polio. She had braces on both legs and walked with crutches. She was about the third or fourth person to walk up to the door and this guy was not running out of energy at all. She came up and he just slammed her so hard that her crutches flew out of her hands and she fell back against the glass. And she literally crawled back up to the door and he hit her again. Oh God! Her boyfriend came up, picked her up and put her aside. And he went to the door. It went on until this person tired and they locked the door. I had just never seen such brutality.

“A lot of people had not wanted to go to this particular restaurant, but John was determined. He decided the place should be done, even if he had to go alone.”

“He wouldn’t waver,” says civil rights activist Will Campbell, recalling another Nashville episode. “There had been demonstrations outside the downtown movie theaters. Considerable violence had erupted the night before. Marchers had been chased and beaten. The Nashville Christian Leadership Council board [NCLC, a splinter of Martin Luther King’s SCLC] was meeting. We made a pitch to John, who was a student representative on the board. We said we felt the city needed a cooling-off period. John was just sitting there very calm. He said, ‘Yeah, but we’re gonna march.’

“The next person made his speech. It went all around. I was the last one, and I was getting a little impatient. I said, ‘John, it seems that you agree with everything everyone says, but you say, ‘We’re gonna march.’ You agree there is probably going to be serious violence, but you’re going to march? What it comes down to is your own stubbornness. Your own sin.’ He looked at me, completely unflappable, and said, ‘Yeah, but we’re gonna march.’

“They marched and nothing happened.”

“He’s beyond driven,” explains Stanley Wise. “Many times, I thought John might be killed. . . . We had many shouting matches where I felt he was too close to the line.” One one occasion, Lewis did back off. In 1958, he decided to personally integrate Troy State University, whose campus lay a few miles from his home. Lewis met with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy in Montgomery, seeking and winning their support. “I had a discussion with my mother and father when I got back,” he says. “They were so terrified, so afraid, I dropped the whole thing.”

In May 1961, Lewis was among the original 13 interracial “freedom riders” chosen by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the area of interstate travel. Prepping for the trip in Washington, D.C., Lewis, then 21, ate his first Chinese food. “Absolutely good stuff,” he recalls. “Served in silver covered dishes. The best food I’d ever had.” During the meal, someone announced, “Eat well because this might be the Last Supper.”

Freedom Riders rode regularly scheduled buses, along with “regular” white and black passengers scrupulously following segregation’s dictates. Lewis go to Rock Hill, S.C., where he and his seatmate, Albert Bigelow, were attacked trying to enter a “whites only” waiting room. Then Lewis was called away from the trip. While he was gone, his Greyhound bus was attacked and burned in Anniston, Ala.; other freedom riders traveling on a Trailways bus were set upon in Birmingham. CORE’s James Farmer called off the trip.

Lewis rushed back to Nashville, where he pleaded with Campbell and other NCLC board members for money to buy 10 bus tickets to New Orleans. Lewis got the money. They left on Wednesday morning, May 17, and got as far as Birmingham, where public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor wrapped them in protective custody and dumped them back on the Tennessee state line. Again they tried, making for Montgomery with Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department scrambling to guarantee their safety. The bus rolled with a highway patrol car alongside and a spotter plane overhead. Lewis picks up the story:

“It was the strangest feeling at the Montgomery bus station. You didn’t see any people. Just nothing. We started down the steps. An angry mob, maybe 2,000 people with baseball bats, lead pipes and chains, rushed at us. I was hit on the head with a wooden crate, left lying in the street semiconscious. Most of the police just disappeared. Floyd Mann, the Alabama state patrol public safety director, came and stood over us. He fired his gun up in the air two three times saying, ‘There’ll be no killing here today! There’ll be no killing here today!’

“A week ago, I saw Floyd for the first time since 1961, in Montgomery,” continues Lewis. “He walked up, shook my hand and gave me a hug. He said, ‘John Lewis, do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Mann.’ He said, ‘I wanted to say congratulations. I’ve followed you all the years of your career.’ I said, ‘Your saving my life made it possible.’”

The ride continued, after rioting whites surrounded Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, where the riders had taken shelter after John F. Kennedy clamped the city under martial law and sent National Guard troops to the rescue. It ended in Jackson, Miss., where the protesters were arrested and eventually packed off to the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. “I spent 37 days in jail,” says Lewis. “I missed my own graduation. . . . On the way to Parchman, one of the deputies looked me over and said, ‘We got niggers in there that will eat you up.’”

“Look at that girl shake that thing.

We cannot all be Martin Luther King.”

—from an early poem written by Julian Bond

In his memorable 1967 profile, Marshall Frady captured what may have been the essential Julian Bond, a tall, boyishly handsome, “whimsically improbably revolutionary . . . [who] suggested one of those languid, leisurely, bright, introspective and exquisitely detached young men in Henry James novels, always preferring to dwell on the periphery of passionate events and conflicts . . .”

Unfortunately, no one—including Bond himself—seems to have paid Frady much attention.

At the time, Julian Bond, 27, the son of Horace Mann Bond, Ph.D. (one of the most distinguished educators in the country), had dropped out of Morehouse College a bare semester from graduating. He left school to write sports and an advance to the lovelorn column for the Atlanta Inquirer, a black weekly newspaper. Bond had begun, then abandoned, an autobiography and had written—in Frady’s words—“a few slight verses of a somewhat diaphanous excellence that were published in several anthologies.” Some years before, he’d run off to north Georgia and married a bright, attractive college coed named Alice Clopton and by 1967 had fathered three children. (He and Alice later had two more children.)

Bond had also managed to offend and infuriate most of the stalwarts in the Georgia House of Representatives, to which he’d won election, only to be denied his seat after refusing to disavow anti-war remarks (the Vietnam debate was raging) made by fellow members of SNCC. Bond was reinstated twice in special elections—to no avail. “They can keep on electing him til Gabriel blows his trumpet,” thundered one rural Georgia politician at the time. “But they ain’t ever gonna get him in here.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise: Bond had been unfairly deprived and would have to be reinstated. The legislators imagined some furious amalgam of H. Rap Brown, Huey P. Newton and Jomo Kenyatta invading their domain. Instead, Bond showed up polite and soft-spoken, dressed—according to Frady—in a somber blue suit with vest, chain and a pocketwatch, looking like a “fledgling banker.”

Bond proved to be no bomb thrower. Over time he grew comfortable with the intellectual process of crafting legislation and the precise rituals of parliamentary procedure. In 1974, he moved to the state Senate, eventually becoming chairman of the Fulton County delegation. And there he remained—serving, all told, 10 terms in both houses—before resigning to square off against John Lewis in the 1986 5th District election. Ironically, Bond waged a two-year battle in the courts and legislature to create the black-majority congressional district that Lewis took away from him.

The years in the Statehouse took their toll. The media image of Bond was the Man of Promise, a gentleman-scholar-statesman on the move. In reality, he was a young, inexperienced legislator thrust into the indelicate world of cigar smoke, backslapping, and back-room dealmaking.

 

In 1968, during the tempestuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Bond was again propelled into the national limelight. A delegate, wanting to get anti-war activist Allard Lowenstein to the podium, nominated Julian Bond—the co-chairman of a group of insurgent Georgia delegates—for vice president. Lowenstein was to give the seconding speech. Bond, basking in the glow of the television cameras, was forced to explain in his crisp, perfectly articulated phrasing, that though honored, he was in fact too young for the job.

Long after the election was captured by Richard Nixon’s Republicans, Bond traveled the country making personal appearances, giving speeches, seemingly building support for some great quest. The country was hurting. King and the Kennedys were gone: the sun was setting on the liberal agenda. Bond was young, gifted and black. His father’s career was a testimony that “those who had some advantage or opportunity had a responsibility to others.” According to Bond, his mother, a “sweet, very soft, retiring person,” contributed another characteristic. “From her I get this feeling that if you wait and choose your moment, your chance will come. It’ll be there.”

So Julian Bond waited. Pursuing, he says, his father’s commitment to the “life of the mind … the world to be found in books … in argument, discussion and theories. An entire life that could be lived in your mind.” And he waited. People grew impatient. “I was struck by the number of people who knew me,” he says, in his Harvard office, “but really didn’t know me. They’d seen me on TV. They were sitting in their underwear drinking beer and I was, in effect, there with them. That was the first shock. The second shock was they began saying, ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’ . . . People in New York and California saw me on TV and said, ‘That guy’s going some place. We expect him to be governor of Georgia.’

“Well, it’s iffy whether Andy Young is going to be governor, 20 years later. They had an unrealistic expectation of what was possible. … I still meet people who are real flattering and say, ‘Gee, we thought you’d be governor by now.’ I say, ‘Gee, it’s something I never thought about.’ I neither thought about nor wanted to be governor of Georgia. . . . I’ve had a multiplicity of interests for the last 25 years of my life, and I want to have them for the next 25.”

“Multiplicity of interests” can also mean a lack of focus, the kind of singleminded determination that drives a John Lewis. Will Campbell, who knew the late Horace Bond, and knows both John and Julian, gently suggests the privileged, well-educated Bond simply “did not know as much of what it meant to be black as John Lewis did.”

Campbell then carries his analysis a giant step further: “In terms of this total makeup and accomplishments, Julian Bond would have been better off if the civil rights movement had never happened. It was inevitable that he become involved when it hit. He had no choice but to be involved—and I know he has no regrets—but it sapped a lot of his energies for a number of years. He might very well have gone a lot further as a journalist or writer or political figure.”

In fact, Bond’s plunge into the movement began rather diffidently, particularly when compared to John Lewis’s “We’re gonna march” directness:

“On Feb. 3, 1960,” says Bond, “I was a Morehouse student, sitting in the Yates and Milton drugstore. Lonnie King, a schoolmate, showed me a copy of the Atlanta Daily World that read, ‘Students Sit In at Greensboro for Third Day.’

“Lonnie asked, ‘What do you think?’

“I said, ‘I think it’s great.’

“’Do you think it ought to happen here?’

“’I’m sure it will happen here.’

“’Don’t you think we ought to make it happen here?’

“’What do you mean we?’

“He said, ‘You take this side of the drugstore and I’ll take that side, and we’ll organize a meeting.’ I agreed, and it changed the whole course of my life. . . . I was a 20-year-old college junior with no career plans other than perhaps being a writer of some kind. My only goal was to finish college and get some kind of job. I was fairly aimless, purposeless. It was possible to be that way. It mayn’t have been six months from then, but it was then. Montgomery had been four years before. There was a little civil rights activity, but I thought that was something you had to be older to do. It was nothing I could do. I’d seen TV pictures of high school students in Little Rock in ’57 integrating the schools. I thought how brave and courageous they were, and I wished I could do something like that. But I neither had the opportunity nor did I see the opportunity. I didn’t look for anything. If Lonnie King had not come along, who’s to say what would have happened?”

According to Marshall Frady, Bond, queried about the Freedom Rides, remarked, “You’d have to be a fool to want to go on a bus trip through those states.”

Even Bond’s 1965 entrance into politics had more to do with intellectual curiosity than fire-in-the-belly commitment. “A friend of mine was running for the House in the district adjacent to the one I eventually ran in. I remember him urging me to do it. It was at his urging that I did it. It was something that I’d thought about.”

 

Lewis and Bond became fast friends in the ’60s. As SNCC officers they traveled the South organizing the Voter Education Project. In 1964, as part of a SNCC delegation, they spend three weeks together in Africa. “We were close friends, dear friends,” says Lewis. “Alice and Julian would come to visit Lillian and me, and the four of us would stay up until 1 or 2 a.m. playing Scrabble. We’d have so much fun.”

In 1969, Lewis wrote a remarkable letter to Bond, telling Julian his “presence [had] filled a vacuum” left by the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. “You became the hope of millions who had previously identified with these two great men. . . . Julian, you have an obligation to the youth of today to use your influence.”

Lewis wanted Bond to go after the 5th District congressional seat then held by Fletcher Thompson: “You should seriously consider running and run like you have never run before!” the letter continued. “If you do decide to run, you cannot afford to let the luxury of being a political celebrity and in demand throughout the country keep you from tackling the ‘nitty-gritty’ and difficult problems. . . . ”

“Somehow, someway,” says Lewis, shaking his head, “Julian made the decision not to run. Andy Young called me late one night from Harry Belafonte’s apartment in New York after he’d read my letter. He said, “If Julian fails to do it, I will do it.”

Bond tells a somewhat different version of the story. “It was a rainy night. Andy had driven me home from some meeting. We sat in the car outside my house. I thought he had the better chance. He had the ability to raise money. I thought he could get white votes I couldn’t get. He didn’t carry the negative burden I had. Remember, this was a few years away from my being the draft-card burner. I was the militant in the state legislature.

“Of course, we’ll never know. Andy ran and lost. Then ran and won [in 1972].”

 

In 1981, John Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. By most accounts his record of legislative achievements was dismal. In part, his ineffectiveness reflected his overriding interest in national and international human rights issues. He also wanted unending ethics-in-government campaigns, thundering against council President Marvin Arrington and other council members with the righteous indignation he’d mustered for Ross Barnett, George Wallace and P.W. Botha. Lewis, of course, believed every word he said, and didn’t hesitate to say ’em before TV cameras and packed galleries. Arrington worked more quietly, effectively guaranteeing that any measure with Lewis’s name on it would stay locked in some committee until South Africa froze over.

“It’s not easy to get into local politics and be the kind of person who has to deal with water, sewers and roads,” says DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Manuel Maloof, a longtime Lewis observer. “John Lewis was never cut out for that. He’s a visionary. Visionaries don’t make good local officials. I would not say that John Lewis was a good local official, but he was the goddamn conscience of that council. He used to make those bastards so mad, they didn’t know what to do!”

In February 1986, Lewis announced he was running for Congress. “A lot of people laughed,” says SCLC president Joseph Lowery. “They said, ‘We’re surprised he made the City Council, now he’s talking about Congress!” Lowery adds, “John soon got their attention with his unrelenting pursuit.” Twenty years earlier, Lowery had watched a painfully shy Lewis, hampered by a speech impediment, force himself to address crowds and meetings. “Whatever was in him just had to come out.”

Meanwhile, Julian Bond was finally making his move. “I’d created the seat, drawn the lines myself,” he says. “I’d made it possible for a black person to be elected. I wanted badly to be there. I could see myself there. It seemed natural to me, the next step.”

Bond banked on his celebrity. Jazzman Miles Davis and Washington Mayor Marion Barry scheduled benefits in his behalf (in retrospect not such great ideas). Media consultant David Garth, who had run campaigns for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, signed on, as did Eugene Duffy, Andrew Young’s right-hand man. Marvin Arrington threw a party.

Insiders say Bond’s supporters had already started mapping his congressional agenda. “I thought Julian was the kind of figure that would be needed, given the waning of liberal influence in the country,” says Stanley Wise, who abandoned Lewis for Bond. “I thought Julian would become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He could put something on the agenda, move them in new directions. They had even anticipated his coming . . . had indicated they were willing to sublimate their egos. . . . America tends to listen when its sharpest minds can articulate a position. That’s the kind of nuance Julian’s election posed.”

When the two were forced into a runoff, Lewis says, “I knew I’d win. I’d outwork him.” Lewis, Time magazine’s “living saint,” also showed he could hit below the belt. When Bond challenged him in one debate on an alleged conflict involving campaign contributions (“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it must be a duck”), Lewis responded that Bond was ducking the drug-test issue. (Lewis still maintains he had not heard any rumors about Bond’s alleged cocaine use.) Thus began the “Jar Wars” stage of the campaign. Bond refused to be tested. Instead, it was their 25-year friendship that went down the toilet. The two men did not speak again until the fall of 1989.

Julian Bond (who won a majority among blacks) says whites cost him the election. “I had the reputation of being a race man,” he says. “I think many white voters said, ‘If Bond gets into office, he’s only going to be worried about them and not about us. John Lewis will worry about us all. He’ll be worried about everyone.’ That was a correct analysis for them to have. They were right.”

In the black churches the issue was whether Julian Bond was a “man of faith.” Other voters found his confidence off-putting. Stanley Wise argues that Bond might have been “too sophisticated for the electorate.” Manuel Maloof, never one to pull punches, says “the people recognized that Bond had never contributed much. The only thing I can remember him doing is burning his draft card. . . . As for coming up with meaningful legislation, being a leader, resolving issues that blacks felt were important . . . no, he did not do that. . . . And John pounded him on it.”

The defeat was devastating. “You feel people have individually rejected you,” says Bond. “Each one standing in your face saying, ‘No, we don’t like you.’” Bond had given up his state Senate seat. He was without income for nine months during the campaign. “He needed to move on,” says one close friend unwilling to be identified. “What kind of options did he have? He seriously wanted to be executive director of the NAACP. The personal problems were boiling.”

In the months after the election, Bond was observed a number of times in southside discos with Carmen Lopez Butler (who sold jewelry at many of the clubs) and other individuals one would not expect to find in his company. On March 19, 1987, Alice Bond walked into the Atlanta Police Bureau’s Narcotics Squad office on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, described Carmen Lopez Butler as her husband’s drug supplier and implicated a number of prominent Atlantans as drug users. She later withdrew her allegations in the press. “In 25 years, I have never ever seen Julian Bond take drugs,” says Stanley Wise. “It came as a total shock to me. But given all the sources, you just couldn’t say that all of it was nonsense. That’s what was so tragic about it.”

Later that year, Julian Bond moved to Washington. His marriage ended in divorce.

 

Two years later, on a bright, warm autumn afternoon, Julian Bond cuts across Harvard Yard heading for the subway that will carry him to the airport and back to Washington. He speaks animatedly about a play he’s “about halfway through … about a black political person. Some of the things have happened to me or I saw or heard about them happening to other people. Things I don’t think I could have made up.” He’s writing a detective novel, but admits to being “about a page-and-a-half into it.” He’s hosting America’s Black Forum, a syndicated TV show, and will spend the next few months on the lecture circuit: “I have something to do almost every day,” he says. Bond won’t discuss his personal life, or a paternity suit recently filed against him in Atlanta by a woman named Deborah Kaye Moore.

He has mixed feelings about leaving Atlanta. “I miss Culver Kidd. I miss hearing the lieutenant governor pound that gavel. I miss those faces I served with all those years … the secretaries, the people who hang around the Capitol. I miss the ambience. . . . But I wouldn’t go back to it to save my soul. . . . You find yourself in different circumstances. You begin to make new friends. You find that life goes on. You’ve got to move on. I’ve moved on.”

This article originally appeared in our March 1990 issue.

The Party’s Over

The tiny dance floor is packed. Guitar riffs flash like lightning from amplifiers three feet above the crush of swaying, sweating dancers. In the men’s room, a couple is clumsily trying to have sex standing in the toilet stall next to the overflowing urinal. “Put it there,” slurs the dark-haired woman to her obviously smashed partner. Outside, a tourist visiting from Toronto meets an attractive, well-educated woman, a chemist, she tells him. Half an hour later, they are having oral sex in the parking lot alongside someone’s parked van. He couldn’t remember her name. — Friday night at Carlos McGee’s, July 1981

In the men’s room, Michael, the valet, is dispensing condoms along with towels and cologne. He keeps them out of sight under the sink. ‘I’ve handed out two boxes since Thursday, he says. Outside, tanned, trim and elegantly dressed young people circle each other like mating peacocks. But behind the familiar ritual, there is a new and troubling uncertainty — a fear that disease and painful death may lurk just a kiss away. Just a kiss away. — Friday night at élan, July 1987

Photography by Kurt Fisher/Bed: Innovations

They sat there, two sultry orchids in the perfumed hothouse that is elan on a busy night. Donna, auburn-haired and full of figure, wore a clingy, purple dress; she had lived in New York and New Orleans before moving to Atlanta. Cindy was every Northern boy’s dream of a Southern girl, sparkly blue eyes and feathered blond hair, a cheerleader’s body sheathed in a tight turquoise dress set off by matching spike-heeled shoes. They were savvy and sassy, career-oriented, open and funny, the kind of women married guys convince themselves don’t exist – and single guys hesitate to approach. Women who make otherwise sane and settled men want to send the wife and kids off to visit her folks in Knoxville.

Both were recently divorced; neither was involved in a relationship. Work filled their days, but loneliness nibbled at the edges of their lives. They had come, they said, to dance and have a few drinks, to ease the tensions of the job and the burdens of single parenthood. They had come, driven like so many of us, in the hope of meeting that special someone. That hope seemed more distant and fragile than ever. There was hesitation in their eyes and a nervousness behind their smiles. They looked past the schools of slick-haired and Armani-attired predators who circled their table looking for an opening.

They were frightened to death of AIDS.

The fear might be groundless – the deadly epidemic does not appear to be moving rapidly into the general population — but it is real. It is threatening the nonstop party that has been underway in At1anta for the past 20 years. The lines may be as long as ever outside the Buckhead bars, and the after-hours action as frantic, but the last thought after the last drink on the couch is no longer, “Will he respect me in the morning?” 

“In the past, your pride was hurt,” says. Donna. “Now you can die. . .. .It’s not that my morality has changed. My dread of the A-word has increased.”

AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — is a disease that reaches beyond its victims. It has created a new medical category, the worried well, who suffer from a new syndrome: ‘FRAIDS. They’re everywhere in Atlanta: pinstriped professionals visiting doctors and therapists; suddenly meek good ol’ boys calling anonymously to the AIDS hotline; guilt-driven husbands and unfaithful wives surreptitiously visiting clinics to. be tested for the virus.

Donna, 39, is worried about “a mistake I may have made three years ago.” A bisexual lover? An intravenous drug user? She won’t explain. “You used to see those signs – SPEED KILLS,” she says reaching for her drink. “Now it’s SEX KILLS.” Cindy, 26, is concerned about men she hasn’t yet met. “How can you even tell if a guy’s been a homosexual?” she asks bleakly.

For that matter, how can you tell if he’s been with a woman who’s been with a bisexual infected with the virus? Or if that perky sorority sister has slept with a fraternity brother who had sex with an infected prostitute the last time Georgia played in the Sugar Bowl? The permutations are endless and terrifying. When you go to bed with someone, say the experts, every sexual partner in that person’s past is climbing in with you.

Both women have drastically reduced their sexual contacts. “I was much more willing to have brief encounters, brief friendships,” says Donna, a sales manager with a national corporation. She pauses. “Listen, most women don’t want one night stands, but it often works out that way.” She has dated “at least 20” men in the past year and gone to bed “with three or four.” Cindy won’t cite statistics; she’s “dated a lot, but only gone to bed with very, very few.” Even those nag at her. “So you date a guy for two months before going to bed with him. You let feelings come into play. Then you do it and hope to God. . . . But who’s going to stop in a moment of passion and say ‘Let’s take a test’?”

“It does no good to ask these questions,” agrees Donna. “A person’s sexual history is unknowable. Besides, how can you trust a man’s answers? . . . I personally would never go for a test. If I were positive, it would signal the end of my life. I don’t think I am, but who knows? I’m getting older. Who needs this grief?”

“The sexual revolution got out of hand,” says Cindy. “People screwing whoever they wanted, wherever they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with sexuality, but it’s wrong to pick up someone, screw them and leave them somewhere.” As she speaks, she is joined by George, a bulky man in a shiny brown suit with matching tie and yellow pocket handkerchief. George, who resembles the fighter Gerrie Coetzee, whisks Cindy off to the dance floor. They return; he finds the conversation none-too-promising. He begins to murmur earnestly into Cindy’s ear; the murmur quickly graduates to a nuzzle.

“Tell me,” asks Donna with a laugh. “Does this look like a man who is worried about AIDS?”

We are living in what will certainly be called the AIDS Era, as surely as we lived through the Vietnam Era. (In a few years, the epidemic will have claimed more lives than that unhappy war.) Like Vietnam, AIDS is cutting across every segment of society; It is divisive and destructive and may be, ultimately, unbeatable. A disease has become part of the national consciousness. Moralists debate its “meaning” from the lecturn and pulpit. (Have you ever heard anyone trying to “justify” cancer?) AIDS is the subject of cocktail party concern and tabloid gossip. It has already taken its place beside nuclear war in the nightmares of our children. “I haven’t heard an AIDS joke in a long time,” says Emory student Christie Constantino. “AIDS will affect everyone in the long run. It already has – we’re all worried about it.”

AIDS has become more than a devastating disease caused by a mindless agent existing on the borderline between the animate and the inanimate, between life and non-life. AIDS is more, linking as it does, sex with painful death, pitting as it does, traditional morality against two decades of sexual and personal liberation. AIDS raises, as Georgia State University sociologist Jackie Boles puts it, that ultimately troubling question: “Did Mom and Dad really know what was best for us?”

According to a national survey conducted last summer by the Los Angeles Times, nearly one in five Americans has radically changed his lifestyle (i.e. sexual behavior) because of fear of AIDS — a threefold increase since 1985. Most of the changes have been in the 18 to-24 age group, and among those who reported multiple sexual partners in the year preceding the poll. More than 10 percent of those surveyed said they had personally known someone who tested positive, contracted, or died from AIDS. The disease is now the second most-feared — after cancer — in the nation.

“Many of my patients are absolutely, astronomically frightened,” says Dr. Steven Morganstern, a well-known Atlanta urologist. “AIDS is something they know I can’t cure.” But Morganstern’s patients are typically not AIDS victims or risk group members. He’s treating world-weary college students convinced that commonplace urinary tract infections are “something lethal.” He’s working with a 32-year-old banker, symptomatic, yet free of any infection, a victim of what Morganstern calls the “galloping guilts.” And then there’s the psychiatrist. “He comes in and says ‘Steve, I trust you to the nth degree. I screwed this girl four months ago, and now I’m terrified. Please help me. Tell me what to do.’ And this is from an M.D.! A psychiatrist!”

Morganstern is also seeing the darker side: gay patients who test positive for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the agent that causes AIDS) “and continue to go out.” He’s convinced many people are indulging in reckless sexual behavior that will accelerate the spread of AIDS into the general population. He mentions a man he’s treating for genital warts (caused by human papilloma virus, which has been linked to cervical cancer in women). “This guy walks in and starts bragging about the chicks he’s going to bed with. . . . ‘This divorcee . . . this 23-year-old . . . this nurse.’ I’m standing there amazed! He’s a walking social indignity! He knows what he has, and he knows he’s putting every one of those women at risk.

“Sex is an extremely strong human drive,” Morganstern continues, groping for an explanation. “Sometimes it overrides rational behavior.” The doctor has put together a bit of safe sex dialogue he’d like incorporated into everyone’s single’s bar repertoire, a mantra to be endlessly repeated in the AIDS Era:

“I’m free of disease. Are you? I wouldn’t want to transmit anything to you. I know you wouldn’t want to transmit anything to me. Have you used IV drugs? Have you engaged in bisexual or homosexual activity? Do you have herpes? Do you have syphilis? Do you have warts?”

“Forget being swept away,” he mutters with the wisdom of a man who has spent too many years looking directly at other people’s mistakes and malfunctions. “When you meet someone in a bar and they want to go to bed with you, and you want to go to bed with them, remember, as fresh and exciting as that moment seems, it’s happened before – to both of you.”

Heterosexual victims — men and women infected through sexual contact with someone with AIDS or at risk for the disease — account for about 4 percent of all cases. (In Georgia there have been just 18 of these cases.) The overwhelming majority have been black and Hispanic women living in the Northeast and Florida whose sex partners were drug abusers. Nationwide, more than 40,500 persons have contracted AIDS; more than 23,000 have died; 1.5 million more may be infected with the virus, their fate uncertain. Ninety percent of these have been gay or bisexual men or IV drug abusers. Hemophilia- and blood transfusion-associated cases make up 3 percent of the total; unknowns, patients for whom information is incomplete (due to death, refusal to be interviewed, etc.) make up the final 3 percent of all adult cases. “We’re not seeing a dramatic shift in the kinds of cases,” says Dr. Harold Jaffe, chief of AIDS  epidemiology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

In recent studies of heterosexuals seeking treatment at sexually transmitted disease clinics, none of 300 surveyed in Seattle tested positive for the AIDS virus; in Denver only one of 1,000 had been exposed. In Atlanta, only one of 92 prostitutes surveyed in a year-long study was infected. “This suggests very, very low rates in the general population,” says Jaffe.

Yet, the panic grows. Talk to any nurse in town about the fear on the hospital wards. (The CDC recently reported three health care workers had been infected, apparently by patients’ blood coming in contact with minor skin abrasions or acne.) AIDS can incubate for years; the virus spreads silently without symptoms. By some estimates, heterosexuals will comprise 9 percent of the 270,000 AIDS cases predicted for 1991. No one knows how many seemingly healthy people are infected with, or passing the virus to, others. And what can you say for sure about that seemingly healthy person standing next to you at the bar, or smiling at you across the crowded floor of the health club?

Harvey is convinced he’s going to get AIDS. He’s not gay or bisexual and doesn’t inject himself with illicit drugs. He is a construction worker who believes — despite all his precautions – that infected vaginal secretions will penetrate his scraped and scratched hands and perhaps he will die. His fear drove him to Atlanta’s first safe sex party for heterosexual males held last August. Harvey, a trim, darkhaired man in his late 20s, wanted information on “hand condoms” — known to the rest of the world as surgical gloves. 

Safe sex parties — organized by AID Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that ministers to AIDS patients and others affected by the disease — provide instruction and advice on how to avoid becoming infected or passing the virus on to others. The mood may be light, but the message is blunt and deadly serious. Nearly 2,000 gay men in Atlanta have attended these functions. (Estimates of AIDS virus infection in Atlanta’s gay community run as high as 30 percent.) In the last year, nervous heterosexual women — mostly professionals in their 20s — have begun to sign up. “The big fear among women,” says Lynn Hampton, one of the organizers, “is ‘How do I suggest using a condom? He’ll think I think he’s gay or I’m a slut.’ Rather than suggesting, many are abstaining from sex.”

The condom is king in the AIDS Era, a must for all but the most secure sexual partners. Atlanta pharmacies all report higher condom sales, with young women increasingly making purchases. The big seller is the traditional latex condom ($4 to $7 a dozen), but the upscale crowd is opting for lambskin ($25 per dozen), clearly the BMW of prophylactics. “It’s the folks on Habersham Road that want the lambskins,” says Steve Falkenhainer, manager of the King’s pharmacy in Peachtree Battle shopping center.

At the safe sex party, a candy bowl contained condoms of various textures and qualities (lubricated, ribbed, receptacled); later they were distributed as favors. Despite comedian Robin Williams’ lament that a condom makes his penis “look like a terrorist,” the hosts insisted that condoms could be imaginatively incorporated into foreplay; they were a. must for vaginal, anal, even oral sex — the latter a seemingly daunting proposition. “You can coat it with mouthwash or a little vanilla extract,” suggested Hampton wanly.

Harvey got to try on his hand condoms (“kinda kinky”), recommended for those who practice “mutual masturbation.” (The AIDS virus has been cultured from vaginal secretions and pre-ejaculatory fluids.) “In Atlanta, chances are you will never meet a woman who has AIDS,” said Hampton, but no one seemed to hear. When one party goer offered statistics that suggested the incidence of AIDS virus infection among heterosexuals who are neither members nor the sex partners of high-risk groups is one per 100,000 or lower, he was accused of having a bad attitude.

“This is war,” said Harvey. “When I go into battle, I go prepared.” In truth, Harvey had already surrendered. He later admitted he had given up sex entirely because of AIDS. The real surprise at the party was David. He was tall and curly-haired, a handsome, virile and sophisticated man, a lady-killer by anyone’s measure. He announced he’d been tested for the AIDS virus and was negative. “Why were you tested?” someone asked. “I’m a practicing bisexual,” he replied. The room fell silent. David was a living example of the bridge everyone is worried about, a pathway that could introduce AIDS into the heterosexual pool. In Minnesota, for example, one third of the AIDS cases have been bisexual men. At least two women in a Minneapolis swingers’ club were infected by such men.

David is not the stereotypical bisexual male — a male who marries and raises a family because it is what society demands, but is sexually and emotionally attracted to men. David loves women, and sleeps with them without telling them he is bisexual.

If AIDS does explode into the straight population, Atlanta may well be Ground Zero. Georgia is first nationwide in gonorrhea cases, fifth in the number of teen pregnancies. There are an estimated 3,000 drug addicts in Atlanta and a booming, convention-driven prostitute trade. Atlanta’s whores may not yet be infected with the AIDS virus, but fully 50 percent of them admit to using IV drugs. One of them admitted to having 5,000 sexual contacts. On Cypress Street, feral packs of male hustlers – many of them drug users – service the furtive needs of bisexual men, some of whom return to prosperous suburbs to join wives and children at Little League games. Many of these drug abusing hustlers have girlfriends who are prostitutes. “AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease,” says Ken South, the former director of AID Atlanta, “and Georgia is a sexually active state. This isn’t just a half dozen queers in Midtown having sex. Atlanta is a cauldron for infection.” 

Elaine sits in the living room of the elegant Tudor home. She is trim and attractive – tanned and toned to perfection. The air conditioner hums softly in the background. The lawn beyond the windows sweeps abruptly downward to Habersham Road. This is another Atlanta, separated from the mundane, workaday city by distance only money can measure. “I fear AIDS,” she says with a little shiver. “It’s out there.” She tries to remember when the uneasiness began. Perhaps when her dentist, then her electrolysist, began wearing gloves.

“At parties,” she says, “you know how you always talk about sex, religion, and politics – those three categories. AIDS is now a category.”

She’s read a lot, but like most people, doesn’t believe everything the government is telling her about the epidemic. She knows the disease is not supposed to be spread by casual contact. “[But] what if someone cuts himself in a restaurant and it’s transmitted?” she asks. Elaine and her husband, . George, travel a good deal. “We have a lot of friends in New York,” she says. “Everybody there knows someone who’s got it, who’s died from it. The feeling has filtered down.”

She’s worried about her children, both still preadolescents. She bought material for them to read. “Terrific stuff,” she says. “I want them to be educated.”

George takes many business trips. “I tell him ‘You better not fool around.’ It’s playful and joking. He tells me the same. I know he’s safe …. I’d cut his balls off.” Elaine says she has a lot of friends, successful career women, divorced or never married, approaching 40. “They’ve been fooling around since their 20s. They’ve banged a lot of eyes out. Now they’re terrified.”

And then she reveals one of Buckhead’s open secrets: another pathway for AIDS. “I know firsthand that a lot of men are seeing hookers. I’m talking about high-class hookers. It’s a way of life around here. They’re in unhappy relationships with their wives. This is how they cope.

“We’ll pay for it,” she laughs. “Us poor Buckhead wives.” 

Sociologist Jackie Boles is an expert in the field of so-called “deviate occupations” — prostitutes, strippers, etc. “Masturbation is OK,” she reports. “Voyeurism is nice. There’s definitely an increase in S&M activity among prostitutes’ requests. Think about it. You’re the customer and you are the only one who is bleeding.” She laughs raucously. “You’re the bleedee!” 

There is something more that makes Atlanta particularly susceptible to the terrors — real and imagined — of AIDS. Something beyond the reach of statistics and epidemiological surveys. Something to do with youth, sex, money, power and expectation. The perception of a once-tired city reborn and shaped in the image of tens of thousands of young people who were drawn here: rural Southerners escaping the choking grasp of small-town life; Northerners fleeing the bleak realities of the Rust Belt; blacks realizing the barriers were finally lifted; college kids eager to embark on life’s first adventures. A desire for life in the fast lane. . . a sense of limits to exceed and new horizons to explore.

An illusion, perhaps, but one powerful enough to make Atlanta one of the premier party towns in America for two decades.”It was personified liberation,” says Boles. “People came to Hotlanta. Young, ambitious, good-looking people who wanted to be free.” And they were. Bars and clubs sprouted like weeds – Billy’s and Harrison’s, elan and Limelight, Carlos McGee’s, Fitzgerald’s, Zazu’s, a hundred others, some with a half-life as short as plutonium 232 and about as explosive. Music played; whiskey flowed. Drugs were everywhere, easing the way past other barriers.

“Sex was safe for the first time,” says Boles. “If you got some disease, you got a shot of penicillin. You had birth control. You had cars. These happy occurrences all came at once.. . . All of a sudden sex was a natural, biological thing, like breathing. The more you do it, the healthier you are. Sex kept down psychoses and neuroses, cleaned out your pores, regulated your heartbeat. If you were overweight or drank too much, have sex. Sex could be substituted for all these other drives. Wasn’t that wonderful?” 

“Nobody ever died· from too much sex.

“And then,” continues Boles, “things started going wrong. Women weren’t using birth control; illegitimate births began to soar. Women got STDs from too many partners. They became sterile. You had herpes.”

And the lonely weight of all the onenight stands, and all the shameless; nameless encounters began to build. The foundations of newly liberated Atlanta suddenly seemed cracked and shaky; the old Atlanta, the bedrock, guilt-driven, Bible Belt town, began to stir and rumble. AIDS was suddenly among us.

People began to die from sex. There have been 864 cases of AIDS recorded in Georgia. Eighty percent of them are in Atlanta; 508 have died. By 1991, there will be 5,000 people in the city dying of AIDS. 

“Human beings always try to get meaning out of what is happening,” says Boles. “Why do we suddenly have a plague? The obvious lessons are being drawn, too easily I think: perhaps sex is not natural after all; maybe sex is  dangerous and has to be controlled. If not, we’re going to have chaos.” 

Roy Griffen knows chaos firsthand. The blue-eyed, 34-year-old Alabamian with the baseball catcher’s body is living everyone else’s nightmare. He has AIDS. Hospitalized four times in the past two years because of a debilitating diarrhea caused by an obscure parasite known as cryptosporida, Griffen recovered only to develop pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (the deadliest AIDS-related infection) last January.

“Don’t call me an AIDS victim,” he says sipping a root beer. “No one mugged me and gave me AIDS. I went out and got it myself.” When he speaks, there is an old man’s wheeze in his voice. His face is flushed and once again he has begun to cough up yellow-green sputum — all signs of recurrent pneumonia. Once, he worked outdoors and did all kinds of manual labor.

That seems such a long time ago. Now he admits he can’t walk two blocks without getting out of breath. Like so many other young people, Griffen came to Atlanta chasing a dream. Not to comer the real estate market or make partner in a big law firm. Griffen, a modest man whose roots run deep in the rocky soil of northern Alabama, wanted to be a landscaper. That and nothing more. He wasn’t gay until he was 26 years old. He’d married his childhood sweetheart, spent six years in the Air Force, even got in a year of college. He was the first on either side of his family to finish high school.

Deep down, he knew he was different. He loved Marilyn dearly and never strayed as long as they were married. He understood just how different he was in one of those strange flashes of insight: “My wife and I were shopping. I realized we were both looking at the same man.” It troubled him.

“I was raised to believe that gays were dirty old men in the bushes,” he says. “I was not that way. So I told myself I mustn’t be gay. It was a very slow process coming to terms with these feelings.”

He told his wife the marriage was over. “She blamed herself,” he says. “I said ‘If you were Dolly Parton, I’d still feel the same way.’ ” Griffen “came out” eight years ago and enjoyed his new-found sexual freedom.

“I tired of that very quickly,” he says. “I wanted to settle into a real lifestyle. “

He must have been infected almost immediately.

Griffen arrived in Atlanta in 1984, the AIDS virus already singing in his blood. He began working with a landscaper learning the trade. Within a year he began to get sick. “I knew I had AIDS long before they told me,” he says. “I was hoping it was something else.” He wanted to die at home. He was a Southerner and this is what Southerners have always done. “My grandfather was an invalid for nine years and we took care of him. We never thought of a nursing home,” he says. Griffen wanted to stay in an old trailer next to his grandmother’s house. “I was very sick. I had no insurance. One of my aunts told the rest of my family I had AIDS. She said she could tell from my voice.”

They turned him away.

“My family is afraid of AIDS. They live in a very rural area. People would mark them. They’d be outcasts.”

This is what he says now. At the time, he tried to kill himself. A year ago he met Bud; both men were suffering from ARC, or AIDS-related complex, a debilitating assortment of symptoms and so-called “opportunistic infections” that are often precursors to full-blown AIDS. The two men grew close. Sex was never an issue.

“I’ve had no sex drive for a long, long time,” says Griffen. Bud died early on a Sunday morning in June – in the same bed Roy now sleeps in.

He is alone much of the time. Some of his friends have abandoned him. He understands.”For them to deal with me, they have to deal with AIDS,” he says. “They don’t want that.”

Griffen doesn’t want to die among strangers in Grady Hospital. He is counting on the staff of AID Atlanta to be with him, but still, on those dark and haunted nights, he grows afraid.

He is not sorry for the way he has lived his life. “I’m a much better person of having been gay,” he says. “I’ve had to deal with bigotry and oppression, but I realized my true feelings and acted upon them. Not too many people can say that. . . I guess I’ve not been successful by the world’s standards, but I’m successful by mine. I’m a Christian. I have faith. I am at peace with myself.

“But,” he adds, “it’s a funny thing. To some people I’m the scum of the earth.”

With the faith that so often comforts the dying, Griffen believes some good can come out of a plague. “A higher power may be working here to remind us that we have to interact with each other as human beings and not sex objects,” he says. Dr. Morganstern agrees. “The sensual thing was getting out of hand. There is going to be a refocusing of sexual attitudes.”

Others worry that the main consequence of the epidemic will be a swing back to the sexual repression of the ’50s, before the drawing of sexual liberation in the ’60s. Sensing these attitudinal changes, politicians are now beginning to evaluate what the situation means for them. Privately, many epidemiologists worry that AIDS is becoming politicized. “There is no doubt that increased funding is coming, in part, because of heterosexual fear,” says the CDC’s Jaffe. “We have to wonder if the money will be spent wisely. Will heterosexual hysteria feed demands for more testing, quarantine and other repressive measures?

“AIDS is so terrible, we don’t want anybody to take a risk and get it,” continues Jaffe. “But the major problem continues to be infected drug abusers and their sex partners – people who don’t read newspaper editorials and have lots of other problems in their lives. . . . The panic will grow worse. The feeling out there is for more restrictive policies. Political leaders sense what the public wants. If it is not what the public health community is giving them, then the politicians will take over.”

It is not surprising that people want assurance in a time of pestilence. When science and medicine cannot provide guarantees, perhaps the law will. Others simply don’t want the party to end. “We’re really upset,” says one divorce-scarred and whiskey- soaked veteran, “because sex is our favorite activity.”

“The thinking is,” counters Ken South, the former AID Atlanta director, “as long as I know everyone who’s positive and everyone who’s negative, I can be safe. But it isn’t the responsibility of the state to lock up infected people and protect the poor uninfecteds. It’s defensive driving. Every sexually active American is going to have to practice safe sex . . . wear rubbers. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to change. They don’t like it.” 

So the party goes on, though the hour is late and the floor is not as crowded as it once was. Maybe it will take, as psychologist Dr. Catherine Blusiewicz puts it, “the death of the firstheterosexual movie star from AIDS” to halt it completely.

It goes on because very, very few straight Americans – outside doctors, health care types and grieving family members – have ever seen an AIDS victim in the horrible final stages of disease.

The party goes on because all of us want love but many have come to accept something less: sex as the synonym for love. The party goes on because sexual behavior is almost impossible to modify. Blusiewicz cites one of her patients, “an extremely sexually active 16-year-old girl,” who is convinced that AIDS will destroy the human race. But, says the therapist, “in terms of how she behaves sexually, it has no input.”

On the other side of the generation gap stands Lane, a 50-year-old divorced grandfather and a fixture at the bar of the Creekside Cafe. Lane does not believe AIDS will penetrate his magic circle of lawyers, businessmen and media types. He’s not particularly concerned. “To have it hit you,” he says, “you got to know somebody it nailed.”

He says this though he’s slept with 12 women in the last year and used a condom with only two. He says this despite the fact that Mary, one of his dates, is so frightened of AIDS she fled in terror from a portrait painted by an AIDS victim (just a touch away!). Another of his dates recently threw a news clipping on AIDS in front of him saying, “Since my divorce, you’re the only man I slept with. If I got it, it has to be you.”

Not to worry, says Lane. “If it does hit, it will be the meat market places, the bars with loud music and plastic people. . . . Obviously, I consider myself real.”

The question occurs: “But for how much longer?”

(Some names in this story have been changed where requested by the individuals interviewed.)

 

Troubled Voices
Calls to AID Atlanta run the gamut: Can a person get AIDS from deep kissing? What about oral sex? 

The phone rings constantly, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Answering them is never easy. Volunteers at AID Atlanta’s Info-Line are often plunged headlong into the nightmare world of dying or newly diagnosed AIDS victims. Begun four years ago to provide AIDS information, the hotline has become much more: a crisis intervention mechanism, a shoulder to cry on, a no-nonsense authority on safe sex and risk reduction.

On a recent Friday morning, Ellen Lappa, a self-proclaimed “tennis-playing Dunwoody housewife,” was working the phones. Calls ranged from the tragic to the absurd, from a man with “a friend with some symptoms,” to a guy afraid to put his hemorrhoid-troubled backside on a public toilet. Following is a random selection from the log of calls that came in on Lappa’s watch, along with a few of her responses. Think of it as a quick peek at Atlanta’s AIDS-troubled psyche:

Caller No.1: (White male, rural accent.) “Is there a chance of getting AIDS from deep kissing or wet kissing?”Lappa: “It’s highly unlikely.”

Caller: “What about oral sex? I get these little abrasions on my penis?”

Lappa: “Our advice is to always use a condom. It’s like wearing a seat belt.”

Caller No.2: (Ambulance driver.) “Can AIDS be transmitted by perspiration? What if I got a patient who was violent and sweaty? I’d have to be real careful, right?”

Lappa: “It would take about a quart of perspiration in your bloodstream to infect you.”

Caller: “Well, I was watching this basketball game. . . I saw these kids, all soaking and rubbing against each other. It got me to thinking … “

Caller No.3: (Gay white male.) “I have shingles (herpes zoster, a painful inflammation of the nerve endings caused by a viral infection). Someone told me it was a precursor to AIDS. But everybody in my family has shingles. I need to know for sure.”

Caller No.4: (White female, rich Southern accent.) “I read where one of the first symptoms is swelling of the lymph glands. Can you tell me a little bit about that? My glands have been swollen since Monday. I haven’t been with anybody but my husband in six years, but I’ve become a little paranoid. I’m sure you understand. . .”

Caller No.5: (Black male, scared, not doing a good job hiding it.) “I had sex with a woman in December. A friend just told me she has AIDS. Her roommate put her out on the street. . . I can’t fmd her . . . My wife has this rash. Her doctor says something funny’s going on.”

Caller No.6: (White female, bluecollar, nervous.) “How soon would you know if you were infected with AIDS . . . . On Monday, I went to bed with this guy who’s … not my husband. He’s a very promiscuous person. My fear is exposing my husband. This is myfault and I don’t want to risk anyone else’s life. Do you see where I’m coming from? A few years ago, this wasn’t such a problem. . . . Hell, I don’t even know what test to go for.”

Lappa: (Explains that it can take as long as six months for antibodies to the AIDS virus to appear in the bloodstream after infection. Therefore, it could take that long for any reliable test results. She tries a joke.) “Tell your husband you were bitten by a mosquito. Really, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”

Caller: (Not amused.) “So, it’s sort of a ‘hang in there’ thing? . . . My husband’s a workaholic. We only have sex on Saturday night. It’s already Friday…. “

Caller No.7: (White male, business type.) “My brother lives in San Francisco. He told me he’s had swollen glands for two years. He says everybody out there has them. He’s the only brother I have. I don’t want to lose him. [Long pause.] He’s coming to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. There are children involved. I understand there’s no risk from casual contact. Is that right? Should my children be allowed to touch and hug him?”

Lappa: “He’ll need lots of hugs. Feel perfectly comfortable with him coming to visit for the holidays.”

Caller No.8: (Airline pilot.) “I’m worried about my copilot. He’s screwing everything in sight.”

Caller No.9: (White woman, upperclass.) “Honey, I just want to find out how prevalent this is in the heterosexual community, because several years ago, I had an affair.”

Caller No. 10: (Young white male, giddy, obviously calling from a pay phone.) “Is oral sex safe?”

Lappa: “Not a hundred percent safe, but … “

Caller: (Interrupting with a laugh.)”I won’t go into the details, but I can promise you it won’t happen again!”

Lappa: “How well do you know this… woman?”

Caller: (Laughing crazily.) “Hell, I don’t even know her name!”

Caller No. 11: (Gay white male.) “My name is Phil and I’ve just learned my best friend has AIDS. Please tell me what I can do …. “

 

The Testing Dilemma 
“Completely Confidential AIDS TESTING. No name or identification required. Buckhead location. Call 261-9327 for information.” — Advertisement, Atlanta Constitution, July 1987 

When you call you are told to ask for Cathy. Cathy doesn’t exist. The name alerts nurses and technicians at the Piedmont Minor Emergency Clinic that you, an anonymous person, are requesting a very special test – one which determines whether you’ve been exposed to the virus that causes the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

When you arrive, there is no waiting. Let the lucky folks with splintered bones and jagged lacerations sit in the waiting room. You are escorted straight to the lab and given five pages of AIDS information to read. A technician carefully draws 5 cubic centimeters of your blood and assigns you a number. You’re probably worried even if you’re among

the 10 percent coming in for premarital testing. You ask lots of questions: “How long does it take for antibodies to the virus to appear in my blood?” “What does it mean to be positive?” “Will I get AIDS?” The last question, of course, cannot be answered.

If you are really nervous, you ask the nurse if the needle she’s using is sterile. “It’s funny,” says Selena Colvin, the clinic’s head nurse. “I’m doing an AIDS test on them and they want to know if my needles are sterile.”

The whole thing takes about 20 minutes. Your blood is stoppered and centrifuged (to separate out the sera) and wrapped in a plastic transport bag along with a requisition sheet listing your number. A courier comes by to pick up the specimen; it is driven to International Clinical Laboratories’ Doraville facility, logged onto a computer, then flown to a Nashville laboratory where the actual testing (an almost fully automated procedure) takes place.

At the Piedmont Minor Emergency Clinic, you pay $80 (always in cash). No charts are written up; no medical records established. The typical clients (75 percent) are white males and females with college backgrounds. If male, you are between 40 and 50 years old. You are likely to be heterosexual. If you are blatantly gay, the nurses may try to remember your face and number and make friendly bets on you.

You might be the accountant in your late’ 40s who had an affair with his secretary. You’ve done this before, of course – the office affairs – but suddenly you don’t trust this woman. You ask how you should break the news to your wife if you test positive. As an afterthought, you wonder if you should tell the secretary.

Perhaps, you’re the pretty, darkhaired woman in your early 30s who arrives in a business suit and carrying a brief case. You haven’t had a relationship in years – maybe you’ve been too busy with a career. You’ve met a new guy you really like. You don’t want to sleep with him until you know for sure.

You might be the clean-cut man, mid-20s, coming in for premarital testing. You’ve had other lovers (female). Now that you’re getting married, you want to be certain. There might be children to consider. Besides, didn’t President Reagan himself recommend routine premarital testing for the AIDS virus? So you use your own name (never, ever do that) because you have nothing to hide. And you mail in a claim to your insurance company for reimbursement. And your insurance is canceled. And you are labeled high risk. And, says nurse Colvin, who heard this very story from a doctor at another testing site, “You’ll never be able to get medical insurance again.”

After five days, the courier brings back your results. You call the clinic and give them your ID number. If you’re a risk group member, you are terrified. Ice water is coursing through your veins. Everyone else is just plain scared. You recall the information sheet given you when you first showed up at the clinic. One of the topics was “Should I take the test?” And the nurse specifically asked how the results might affect your life. You wish you had paid more attention. If your test is negative, the nurse tells you so right over the phone. You breathe real deep and say things like “It’s abstinence for me.”

If you are positive, the test will be run at least twice and a fmal, very reliable test called the Western blot will confirm the results. You then are referred to a doctor who will attempt to calm and counsel you over the phone. Of course, he will fail, because at that moment, you are inconsolable. And doing it over the phone is ineffective at best, inhuman at worst.

If you were the young man who tempted fate and gambled with death by allowing the nurses to assign you the identification number 13, you lost. 

Your test came back positive.

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