Reagan, Trump and the Cruelty of Indifference

13 mins read

How do we trust our government when the President is a pathological liar?

For people over 60, every interaction is fraught with death. 

When the COVID-19 shutdown began five months ago, my partner was with his elderly mother in San Bruno, where he remains.

A few weeks ago, I started meeting with my therapist in Dolores Park. On my walks to the park, I noticed more homeless people in new tents. Yesterday I saw a collection of freshly laundered business suits draped in plastic over a bright blue tent. The sight of it broke my heart.

Blue Pup Tent
A memory of Market Street

When I can’t take any more Trumpian abuse, I switch and log into VR, where my alternates recreated the homeless encampments of the 1980s.Trump’s intentional mismanagement of COVID-19 is reminiscent of Reagan’s indifference to mental illness and the outbreak of AIDS.

The consequences of Reagan’s policies were as traumatic as the treacheries of my childhood. 

A Memory of market Street
Another memory of Market Street

I spent most of the 1980s preparing to die from AIDS.

I asked myself what I wanted to do with the last days of the rest of my life and chose writing. As a youth, I had wanted to be a poet, but I took my grandmother’s advice to make poetry an avocation, something to do in old age, which was suddenly 29.

In August of 1984, I befriended a poet best known in the gay community for his homoerotic writing. I was ballsy enough to ask him to teach me to write poetry, and he said yes, offering me a room in his rented cottage on Albion Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.

I took the room, and while working full-time, began the painful work of becoming literate. By day I absorbed centuries of writing and literary criticism. By night, I wrote as much as possible, desperate to leave a legacy as my community sickened and died. 

Four years of Reagan’s budget cuts culminated in a permanent population of disabled people living in the gutters. First came the mentally ill. Soon they were joined by gay teens from all over the country, many from abusive communities and families. Some of these kids formed an alliance with AIDS activists and built a sprawling encampment at the Civic Center.
I wonder where they’re going with those bats

As AIDS took my friends, I began to compulsively check my arms and legs for KS lesions. I had a crisis over every blemish.

In 1985, a dissociative alternate inspired by the Nathaniel West short story, “Miss Lonelyhearts,” emerged. Like Miss Lonelyhearts, the alternate had a Christ complex. He took dangerous all-night walks through the homeless encampments at Civic Center and around the adult cinemas and arcades on Market Street and in the Tenderloin. He returned to the cottage at 6 AM to write a paragraph and then sleep. 

He called himself Loleeta Morales of Los Portales. (Loleeta is a regrettable pun, Morales was the name of one of my many shrinks, and Los Portales was the name of a popular gay dance bar in the Mission.) 

Loleeta became more emotionally unstable with every walk she took. I sometimes “woke up” in a crisis clinic or on a locked psychiatric unit with no memory of why I was there. Still, I always found a story in Loleeta’s notebook.

A locked psychiatric unit stinks. 
A janitor arrives in the morning to stir the floor with his mop.
A Nurse patrols the day room with a can of Lysol spritzing above her head.
Dr. Christopher Morales is a German from Brazil.
He is like a frog becoming a prince, frozen in transition.
Dr. Morales watches me eat breakfast with a look of calculated concern.
“You like your breakfast?” he asks.
I nod and nibble the tip of a sausage.
“You are feeling suicidal today?”
I nod and swallow.
“How long do you do you intend to feel this way?”
“Until the day I die!” I say sweetly, so Doctor Morales hops off in pursuit of a fly.
—Excerpt from Los Portales, 1987

Psychiatrists thought Xanax was a treatment for depression, so mine put me on eight milligrams a day. But Loleeta frightened me because I didn’t know why “he” existed, and I worried he would get us killed. When I expressed these concerns to my psychiatrist, he upped the Xanax.

By 1986, I was sick enough to meet Reagan’s definition of total disability according to Social Security: “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity … by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 

My psychiatrist diagnosed me with a potentially lethal mood disorder so the government reluctantly gave me a grant of $700 a month.

By 1987 I was on the brink of homelessness and wondered why I was still alive. I was sickened by Reagan’s government and felt betrayed by my 30-something peers, whose political activism became an empty rebellion of style.

Loleeta Morales reclines to read her favorite leftish magazine.
She offers this excerpt from an Utne article entitled ‘The Place of the Poor in our Cities":
“Poor people have taught us so much about how to move rhythmically and melodically down the street, about how to use color and ornamentation to say new things about ourselves, about how to bring out the rhetorical and theatrical powers of the English language in our every day talk.”
Loleeta writes: “I can teach them how to walk, talk, and dress.”
She decides to prepare herself for the task. First, she needs a hit of speed to kill the hunger. Next, she needs an especially well-swept section of the City: where is the color and ornamentation of her poverty needed most? Does the Castro want some rhetoric? And what shall she wear? Her wardrobe expands with possibilities. She settles on an avant-garde pair of shit-stained chinos topped with fading looks and tie.
Loleeta writes: “I never thought I would have a special place in the life of a city. For this, I am grateful.”
She crosses herself and enters traffic.
Lights change on her command.
Loleeta Morales looms over San Francisco like a Godzilla in search of King Kong. Her jaw flops open, and she roars: “How many bores wanna be like Loleeta Morales!”
Dozens she decides.
As if the hills are alive with the theatrical joy of Loleeta, she storms 18th Street like a mob with convictions. There was money in her mailbox today, her payday for going crazy.
With that thought in mind, she clamors into the Bank of America.
“Cash my check!” she demands.
“Gladly!” the teller answers.
And Loleeta takes her place in the scheme of things.
—Excerpt from Los Portales, 1987

In late 1987 I tested negative for AIDS, and Loleeta and my bi-polar illness went away.

Loleeta Morales ran my life for over two years. In the end, he committed suicide and left me with 200 pages of a frightening and confusing story.

Loleeta Morales decides to die from compassion instead of lust and self-loathing.
She is the New Puritan who brings a message of cleanliness: yesterday’s stud is today’s carrier, so Loleeta gets carried away.
She writes: “Now is the time when I, Loleeta Morales, will deliver my eulogy — because no one else can possibly know how nice I am.
I was a good girl. I respected science. I felt the Constitution of the United States was worth reading. I also felt that food was something I had a right to because the anguish of hunger is cruel.
Let it be said at my funeral that I was always one of the others.
—Excerpt from Los Portales, 1987

It is 2020.

Our president is a racist who persecutes migrant children. He extorts our allies and invites tyrants to help rig our elections. He is using a deadly virus to kill off the poor and disabled as he spreads enemy propaganda designed to distract and confuse our people.

Reagan’s 80s proved that average Americans will not only normalize a disgusting abuse of political power, they will also happily condescend to and blame the victims, if the consequences don’t directly affect them.

Can we undo the mistakes in collective judgment that got us here? Can we face up to and atone for over 40 years of our complicit abuse of the poor and disabled?

During the shutdown, I built a virtual replica of the homeless encampments on Market Street in the 1980s.

I log in to remember and bear witness.

Young girls are coming to the Canyon.
They make their way up Polk Street; hustle the arcade on Turk and Ellis.
Young girls are coming: in the all-night cinema on Jones Street.
Where the homeless sleep in the aisles.
Where the pushers hustle the john.
Loleeta sees them and loves them.
She is the queer Jesus, come in the true spirit of Christianity.
She witnesses to the sick and needy,
She does it with the patience of a god.
Excerpt from Loleeta, 1987
Young girls are coming to the canyon

“[T]he homeless who are homeless, you might say, by choice,” Ronald Reagan, 1984

The Mattress
The mattress

All Images by Rob Goldstein 2020
(c) Rob Goldstein 2020

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