Sunday, October 23, 2005

Paving The Way

Paving the Way Days Seven and Eight

October 22, 2005

Dear friends,

Real Texas chili, that’s what I’m talk’n about!  

Friday started with a spirited to the Trenton Masonic Temple, where we were served a hot catered breakfast before marching in what had become a steady rain to the Statehouse with several dozen local AIDS activists.  Several dozen more activists met us at the rally site.  The rally had participation from a variety of organizations in south Jersey, including folk from Trenton and Camden.  U.S. Rep. Frank Palone spoke knowledgeably about AIDS in New Jersey and endorsed C2EA and its goals.  But, as usual, the most powerful speakers were people living with AIDS and HIV.  

After the rally, we went back to the Masonic Temple for a quick lunch. Armed with all-white rain gear that looked like hazmat suits, we then set out for the bridge crossing the Delaware River, accompanied by many of our new friends and the same friendly police escort that had brought us into Trenton the day before.  After lots of goodbye hugs, we set out across the bridge into Pennsylvania.  

We had only marched a few miles when we were met by the Millville police, who claimed no knowledge of our caravan.  They were adamant that we could not march through their town, though we were on the sidewalk.  Valerie and terri completely charmed them, explaining our purpose even while getting them to help us devise a route that would meet their satisfaction.  At the end of the conversation, as the police were facilitating our crossing the street, one of them said, “Your suits make you look like marching condoms.  This is great!”  

With that, the police left us to our own devises, as we made our way on narrow shoulders and grassy roadside paths, with a steady rain and accompanying chants and patter to keep us moving.

At about 1:30 in the afternoon, I had to peel of to catch a flight to Austin, Texas.  I had promised folk at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church last spring that I would come and speak at their annual AIDS commemoration.  Even in the rain, it was hard to leave the march.

My flight arrived late, and I arrived at my motel early in the morning.  As tired as I was, sleeping on a mattress after a week of urban camping left me fitful.  Then came the panic of the morning.  I had only an hour and a half to iron my suit, shower and find my way to the church.  Confusion about which luggage in what vehicle had left me without my phone charger, my laptop and my medications.  No one at the motel knew the street where the church was located, and none of the Austin contacts were answering their phones.  

A couple of quick phone calls with my Assistant, Douglas Sanders got me to the church five minutes before 9:00am, my scheduled speaking time.  The lawn in front of the church was covered with white crosses, stars of David, and crescents, representing people who had died of AIDS in the Austin area.  Many had names that passers by written on them.  But the church parking lot was empty.  I wandered into the church, again feeling a surge of panic.  Had I gotten the day wrong or perhaps gone to the wrong place?

Finally another car arrived, and I learned that I had been given the wrong time.  The service was to start at 10:00am.  I was an hour early.  Only then did I remember my promise for the march.  “It is what it is, and it is all good.”

When Douglas was making my travel arrangements, he had told me that my rental car would only cost $22 dollars.  He asked if he could upgrade me from an economy car to something a little nicer.  It would only cost $5 more.  He suggested a Trans Am, but I thought that was a little ostentatious.  Instead, he had reserved a convertible.  I went out to the church parking lot and put the top down.  With the morning sun shining warm and bright, I drove off to find a real cup of coffee and a newspaper.  “It is what it is and it is all good.”

The commemorative service was small and brief but sweet.  It was an unusual crowd for me.  All white, middle class, almost all straight, and no one, so far as I could tell, who was living with AIDS or HIV, gathered to remember those who had died.  I challenged folk not just to care, but to care enough to work to bring the epidemic to an end.  

One of the participants had been at the Soul of the South rally and vigil at the Texas Statehouse and Governor’s Mansion earlier in the week.  He shared his experience being there in the early morning hours, holding a sign that said, “Wake Up, Governor Perry!”  He said that at about 3 in the morning, a State Trooper came out of the Governor’s Mansion and ordered the demonstrators to quiet down.  The Governor, he said, had been awakened by the noise and had complained.

I had written Keith’s name on a cross before the service started.  After the service, I asked a man with a camera if he would take a photo of Keith’s cross and send it to me.  As we walked through the filed of crosses to find Keith’s, the man shared with me that he did not know anyone who had HIV or AIDS, or at least he didn’t think he did.  But, he said, the year before, he had been photographic the crosses when he saw the name of someone who had been his best friend in elementary school.  He still didn’t know if it was the same person, but it was enough for him to know that AIDS had touched his life.  He asked what he could do to help the Campaign.

I am learning that C2EA is more important for the little ways it is touching people’s lives in small but transformative ways.  I am starting to believe that those little changes, added up can turn into a stream that grows into a mighty river of people captivated by a vision of a world without AIDS.

Leaving the service with a couple of hours to kill before my flight, I decided to have a bowl of real Texas chili, at the Texas Chili Parlor, an institution I haven’t visited in over 25 years.  Today was the big game, UT vs. Texas Tech, and downtown Austin was swarming with people dressed in Long Horn orange.  I found a seat at the bar, and ordered a beer and a large bowl of the real thing.  

(For those of you who don’t know better, real Texas chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no ground beef.  It’s made with chunks of brisket or other tough cuts of beef, simmered for days in water, beer and secret spices, served up with saltines and huge helpings of raw onions and sliced jalapeño peppers.)

Once I had eaten my full, I made my way outside through the crowd.  A woman dressed in Long Horn orange from head to toe, stopped me on my way out the door.  “What’s the red ribbon stand for?” she asked.  

“It represents a call for an end to AIDS,” I responded.

“AIDS?” she replied.  “That’s nice.”

As I write this, I am in the basement of the First United Methodist Church in center city Philadelphia.  The symphony of snores has begun.  I am eager to get up and march tomorrow morning in the rain with all of my friends and comrades from Paving the Way.

Love,

Charles King

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