Banking away from the freeways toward the seashore, Laguna Canyon Road fairly sings of the beauty, escape and fun ahead. It skims past a shallow lagoon, then sweeps by towering eucalyptus trees and cattle grazing on hillsides.
The road spills out onto Coast Highway and Main Beach, where on a warm fall day the carefree and the bronzed play volleyball and bask in the sunshine.
In town, beyond the cookie and T-shirt shops, designer boutiques of gold and silk, Marieta Ermatinger, 63, stands in her laundry, The Cleaners, and talks of a side of Laguna that belies this idyllic picture.
It’s a world she has come to know through some of her customers. She liked them and knew their names. Much cleaner than your average single male, they turned their socks right side out and paired them. Not even women do that, she said.
Then, all of a sudden, one day, they just didn’t show up.
Some had mentioned that they were dying of AIDS and probably wouldn’t be bringing in their laundry much longer. On others she recognized the cancerous purple splotches or gauntness that signaled the infections within.
A few were only kids in their 20s. One was a street person who brought in his sleeping bag for cleaning. The last one, a successful real estate agent, went--snap!--just like that, only the week before.
Some people ask her, how can you do their laundry? “I say they need laundry done like anybody else. I’m not sleeping with them for chrissakes.”
The laundress dropped her chin into her palms, elbows on the counter. She stared unseeing out the front windows, past the whiz of cars, to the shimmering sea beyond. The scent of bleach lingered in the breeze. “Gosh,” she said, shaking her head, “we’ve lost a lot of guys in this town.”
Ten years into the epidemic, the ugly face of AIDS has surfaced in this picturesque community like no other.
Last year, the city’s annual rate of new cases was 1.42 per 1,000 people, surpassing the 1.29 rate in San Francisco, the highest among major U.S. cities, according to the national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The statistics come as no surprise to those who know that the town is a gay tourist mecca, where an estimated 25% of the 26,000 residents are gay. Since 1985, there have been 184 AIDS cases reported in Laguna Beach; 119 have died.
Yet, unlike San Francisco, AIDS in Laguna Beach remains curiously invisible to outsiders.
“You don’t see people (with lesions) in restaurants. People don’t talk about it nearly as much, even gay people,” said Randy Shilts, author of the AIDS history “And the Band Played On.” “It’s striking how different it is down here. In some quarters you wouldn’t even know it existed.”
One reason, he said, is that “the reality of AIDS is so contrary to the Southern California ethos of youth and beauty.”
Some also mention both the complex social structure of the town--a molecular arrangement of cliques that intersect occasionally--and the vested interest in denying the epidemic held by a few shopkeepers, arts promoters and closet gays.
“Laguna Beach is an oxymoron,” said local writer and arts commissioner David Battenberg, who has lived in town for five years. “It’s a creative-liberal-artistic, conservative-Republican community. You have die-hard supporters of radical right-wingers living at the top of the hill and their neighbors are a retired gay couple from Dallas who made a fortune in the design industry.
“Among the gays, there’s a hierarchy. At the top there’s the landholders, the money people and the executives. At the bottom, the new youth, the wayward boys of summer who hang out across from the gym or on Main Beach. In the middle are the guppies--the gay upwardly mobile--and the art group.
“It’s an unusual cross-section. You’d think that would make everyone more understanding. It doesn’t. Sometimes it makes them more hostile and closed.”
Only by delving beneath the resort’s surface, exploring its bars, beaches and living rooms, can one understand the complex fabric of the community, where nearly everyone has been touched by the specter of AIDS.
As early as the 1920s, gays began traveling to Laguna, a popular filming location, as part of the Hollywood movie crowd.
A tourist core developed and announced to the rest of Southern California, “It’s OK to be non-traditional and come to this community,” said Robert F. Gentry, a city councilman and one of the first openly gay elected officials in the state.
The beatniks, the hippies, the Hare Krishnas all followed.
In the ‘60s, word spread along a newly formed national underground that gays could vacation safely in Laguna Beach.
In the following decade, while middle-class homeowners were starting to transform the village with condos, Laguna emerged as a destination resort for gays, rivaling Fire Island in New York and Provincetown, Mass.
Buoyed by a growing sense of freedom, tolerance and possibility, gays drank and danced together on weekends at Dante’s and the Barefoot Bar near Main Beach, at the end of the canyon. Gay weddings were held on the front lawns of tree-lined neighborhoods.
One 58-year-old resident who came out of the closet in the ‘70s remembered the exhilaration of liberation. “We thought, ‘We’re OK! We can be who we are. We can have sex when we want to. It doesn’t matter.’ ”
In the ‘70s, the city renovated Main Beach, demolishing the gay bars and building a boardwalk.
Party life moved south down Coast Highway. Older, wealthier men tended to gather at the Little Shrimp, a piano bar; the younger crowd at the Boom Boom Room, a disco in the Coast Inn. Meanwhile, up in the cliff-top homes, wealthy party givers engaged in friendly competition over who could throw the most creative events.
A “pig party” started as a luau, but wound up as an annual tribute to the pig after the hosts didn’t have the heart to kill it.
Christine Jorgensen was a favorite party guest. Rock Hudson stayed in the hillsides, quietly visiting friends.
“Laguna is a sad place for me now,” said a Los Angeles film designer who has lost a dozen friends he partied with in his Laguna Beach home. “I don’t want to say it’s a graveyard. But it’s not the same because of the deaths.”
“I don’t think I’ve lost anyone not ambitious, not productive, not creative. They were all in the midst of wonderful careers and things to do, things to accomplish.
“I only have two friends left in Laguna Beach.”
In 1980, the town received a guest who symbolized the devastation to come: The flight attendant who became famous as “Patient Zero.”
One of the first half-dozen AIDS patients in the continent, Gaetan Dugas already had Kaposi’s sarcoma when he spent Thanksgiving weekend in Laguna Beach with a hairdresser he had met in West Hollywood, author Shilts said.
Later, after researchers had placed Dugas at the center of a national cluster diagram establishing sexual links between 40 patients of a new mysterious disease in 10 cities, he began to brag that he was “the Orange County connection.”
Contrary to doctors’ orders, Dugas said he would not give up sex, and was accused of maliciously spreading AIDS in San Francisco bathhouses. Dugas, who died in 1984, claimed that he had had 2,500 sexual partners.
“Half of Laguna slept with him,” said one of his former lovers.
Although some gays loved Laguna Beach for its propriety, others were caught up in the social undertow of booze, drugs and promiscuous sex. Parties grew wilder, fueled by cocaine and amyl nitrite “poppers.”
For years, some of the most notorious gatherings were given by two middle-aged doctors, Sheldon (Shelly) Lippe and James (Bud) Waren, in their 4,000-square-foot home on Coast Highway overlooking the sea. The doctors, a urologist and an anesthesiologist, drove custom-made Clenet automobiles with Lalique hood ornaments, a Mercedes-Benz and a Rolls-Royce, and owned a crystal shop in town. Their home, decorated haphazardly with expensive crystal knickknacks and ceramic animals, contained a sex room filled with pornographic art.
Guests recalled that parties sometimes lasted three days, with revelers culled from the Boom Boom or the Little Shrimp after-hours.
“We used to hang out and invite people back for parties or just for the night. We had a lot of those,” recalled Lippe, 52.
Wearing jeans and Gucci loafers, Lippe sat on a Dartmouth green leather couch in the living room of the woodsy hilltop home where he now lives.
The parties, which cost about $10,000 each, were so popular, he said, they started renting entire hotels for hundreds of young men and a few women. About 800 revelers attended one hotel party where male and female models were hired to swim nude in the pool.
One guest was Matthew Hamlin, a handsome horse trainer who had discovered he was gay at 19 and moved to Laguna Beach, the only town in California he felt he could call home. Hamlin knew his looks had put him on the doctors’ guest list. Naturally blond, tanned and well-muscled, he appeared to be a “Twinkie"--an airhead looking for a good time.
“I fit their type to a ‘T,’ ” he said in a recent interview.
Among the first to die in the epidemic were some of Hamlin’s friends, a bartender at the Boom Boom Room and an arts commissioner.
“We all thought it wouldn’t happen to us,” Hamlin said.
Thirty of his friends from those days, half of whom were lovers, had died of AIDS, Hamlin said.
In 1985, Lippe and Waren learned they were HIV positive. Waren died a “slow and ugly death” the following year, Hamlin said.
Lippe, disabled by an AIDS-related neurological disorder, lives at home with the help of full-time staff. Lippe said he has lost 100 friends to AIDS.
His only regret is that “this virus came along . . . .
“I had a wonderful life. I wish (those days) were back again.”
Hamlin tested positive for HIV in 1985 and was found to have AIDS three years ago, when he was 32.
On a warm September afternoon, he sat dressed in a small T-shirt and drawstring pants on the patio of a friend’s condominium, where he was living, combing back his shoulder-length hair with his fingers and smoking designer cigarettes.
He had become a popular AIDS activist, lecturing students and counseling others--appearing to be the role model of a person living well with AIDS. He continued to work, training horses at a San Juan Capistrano stable but keeping his health problems secret from his employers.
Meanwhile, his private life had entered the spirals of hope, fear, denial and spiritual reckoning that accompany the new medications, financial problems and increasing isolation so familiar to AIDS patients.
Along with his medication, he continued to drink, countering his own better judgment with a “what difference does it make?” argument.
He also confided that under certain circumstances, he would consider suicide, probably via an overdose. He had already written instructions for his memorial service.
The disease had progressed to the point where he started confronting feelings of rejection. “It’s been difficult for people to be my friends,” he said. “I had a lot of anger.”
He tried to socialize, going out to the bars in his jeans and cowboy boots, and he dated, although he was much choosier about his partners, insisting on safe sex and only with those already HIV-infected.
“It feels good to know you’d be desirable to somebody,” he said. “It’s human nature.”
But behind the appearance of coping, he was enduring night sweats, swollen glands, yeast infections in his mouth, colitis and 30 other opportunistic infections. His body stopped tolerating the drug AZT, and his memory began to fail.
He said he didn’t think he would live much longer.
“I’m so tired of it,” he said. “It gets too crazy.”
Just before Thanksgiving, Beverly Hamlin knew something was wrong. Matthew didn’t answer the phone, and when she went over to the La Habra rental home where he had just moved, his car was there.
She found her son’s body on a sofa. Nearby was his dog, a half-empty glass of wine, a full ashtray and three empty bottles of morphine-based prescription pain pills.
He left a note that said he was sorry; that he couldn’t stand the pain any longer.
She had known this might be coming. She had given him her permission.
“He watched so many people suffer. He didn’t ever want to go through that.
“People can rise above it, like Matthew did,” she said. “But it’s always there. It’s always there.”
On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, about 175 family and personal friends gathered in the glass-walled United Methodist Church in South Laguna. On one side were the chaparral-covered hills, on the other the pale yellow sea.
The pastor read Hamlin’s own words, as he had requested: “I believe that God gave me a life here on earth that’s had its ups and downs, but I’ve really enjoyed living and for the most part I’ve had a ball.
“I also want people to know that I’m proud of who I am as a gay man, and know that AIDS was not God’s punishment for who I am and what I’ve done.”
Five years ago, Police Officer Bob August rolled up Laguna’s foothills, past his alma mater, Laguna Beach High School, to a medical aid call at an apartment.
An artist had shot himself in the head. The man had been losing his hair in patches. What pushed him over the edge, police learned from his therapist, was blindness caused by a disease August had heard of but never encountered.
When they arrived, no one--not even the coroner--was sure of what to do. Blood had soaked the carpet all around the body. Scared and cautious, they each put on two pairs of gloves and paint masks to carry out the body. Some wore rain boots.
Now, as more people are living longer with the disease, the AIDS calls usually involve late-night fevers and pneumonias. August has seen the full range--from transients who sell their bodies for $2 on the beach to the very rich.
“I’ve been to houses where there are two Mercedeses in the garage. He’s got all this stuff. He’s 45. After he worked his fanny off to get it. It doesn’t seem fair,” August said.
Often the men now insist the police take precautions to protect themselves. “One gentleman, gosh, a few weeks ago, said, ‘I have Kaposi’s sarcoma all over my legs. Please be careful of the lesions. They are weeping.’
“He seemed to be a hopeful type of person, taking his medication properly. A lot give up hope and stop taking medication,” August said.
On the force, where some remember the undercover squads that used to prowl public bathrooms for come-ons from gays, no one jokes about AIDS anymore. In lengthy job interviews, the police chief tries to weed out homophobes. And increasingly, younger officers tell him, “My brother’s out. My sister’s a lesbian. It’s not a big thing.”
Now, the biggest, most creative private parties in town are AIDS benefits.
The city has championed AIDS causes, welcoming a skilled nursing facility for AIDS patients; funding Laguna Shanti, a support organization for people who have tested HIV positive; and setting aside $10,000 to begin direct patient services. It created the county’s only municipal AIDS education task force and passed an anti-discrimination ordinance based on HIV status.
But shards from the original scare linger.
An unsuccessful shopkeeper blames bad business on AIDS--although business revenue is rising citywide.
A cultural leader says he has had no experience with AIDS at work, then concedes he is “terrified” that any association with AIDS may hurt the arts community.
A Laguna Beach interior decorator, who has lost nine close friends, said his out-of-town guests refuse to eat in Laguna restaurants, afraid they might catch AIDS from waiters or cooks.
Some men have quit going to the local gym where AIDS patients work out, said Laguna therapist Stuart Bloom. “There is such fear and ignorance and lack of trust.
“I can understand it to some degree. Now they say you can’t get it from sweat. But what’s going to happen in three years? Will they say the same thing? It is a terrible disease. We’re talking about death. People are real scared.”
At the same time that the prevalence of AIDS adds to the general homophobia, it frightens some younger gay men into denial.
“One of the things that made AIDS so difficult for gay people to deal with in Laguna is that so many of them are not comfortable with their own identity,” said Tim Miller, director of the AIDS Response Program. He has seen four friends a year die since 1984, including his own longtime companion in 1985.
In their obituaries, the local papers rarely mention AIDS as a cause of death.
The door of Laguna Shanti is open to the evening air. The room is quiet except for the sound of a few passing cars.
Gary Costa, the instructor of the Hot ‘n Healthy safe-sex workshop, glances at the roomful of 10 gay men, all of whom have tested HIV positive, and asks, “So, what do you miss most as a result of the AIDS epidemic?”
A middle-aged man in jeans and running shoes raises his hand. Oral sex, he says, in common slang.
As chipper and unfazed as Dr. Ruth, Costa turns around and repeats the syllables slowly as he writes on the board behind him.
“OK!” he says, and spins around brightly. “Anybody else?”
They mention group sex. Unrestricted bathhouses. One man says he misses the pride he once felt to be gay.
Two of the men appear to be under 30, two are married. Another two have the shrunken look of the later phases of the disease.
A man with movie-star looks said he is a teacher, a coach and the father of three. He is holding hands with a gaunt man, who, despite his illness, presents a cheerful, joking demeanor to the class.
Though they are infected already, they have come because they do not want to infect others.
As Costa explores two of the most challenging matters to confront openly--sex and death--the atmosphere takes on a surreal quality. Pleasure . . . death . . . pleasure . . . death.
Costa brings out a box of rubber dildos and passes them out. The men practice putting on condoms with, as Costa has told them, only water-based lubricants. Pleasure . . . death . . . pleasure . . . death.
They role-play picking up a date and practice negotiating for safe sex.
Now, Costa asks them: What’s good about the AIDS epidemic? The return of dating, say some. Romance. Candlelight. Love letters. Porno movies.
A white-haired gentleman in shorts and deck shoes folds his arms across his chest. Quite honestly, he says, he can’t think of a single thing.
Across the street, in a weathered wooden office building, Dr. Leonard Lamont is winding down his year-old practice--currently said to be the only one in Laguna Beach that accepts HIV or AIDS patients.
He says the number of time-consuming cases, the emotional intensity and the lack of support from other doctors has burned him out.
“I had appendicitis for three weeks, and couldn’t get (other doctors to cover for him so he could) see another physician. The appendix ruptured, I developed peritonitis and nearly died.”
When he was in the hospital, he learned that one of his 70 AIDS or HIV patients had died.
“I cried when I heard he died. I couldn’t take care of him myself.
“He was one of the characters of the century. A great guy. He and his significant other would come in and they were always fighting in a jovial way.”
Lamont, 33, delighted in coming to Laguna when he was a student at UC Irvine and looked forward to opening a practice there.
He had expected 20% of his clients to be AIDS patients. Instead, they composed 40% and took up 80% of his time.
After he leaves for his new job at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, he believes his patients will do well. A new comprehensive treatment and research center for HIV and AIDS called the Center of Special Immunology opened Monday in the Irvine Spectrum, at the other end of Laguna Canyon Road, where it joins the freeways.
The Florida-based center chose the site because of the high incidence of infection in the area and what spokesman Matthew Klir called “an alarming reluctance on the part of the medical community to respond.”
Turning seaward from Coast Highway, Mountain Avenue stops at the cliff.
A lone drinker sits behind a glass of wine in the nearly empty Boom Boom Room and looks beyond the dead end toward Santa Catalina Island and a tangerine sunset.
At the bar, Michael, 24, wipes glasses and prepares for the early evening crowd.
Two years ago, he hardly knew anyone who had AIDS. Now, as the bartender/confidant in a small town where news travels fast, he has heard many disheartening stories of the survivors.
He has lost three friends himself, he says. “And that’s enough.”
The Boom Boom has been for sale for two years--a prospect cheered by a certain element in town, he said. “It’s here and it’s been here for years,” he said. “If they can’t deal with it, it’s their problem.” If it changes hands, however, many think it will no longer be a gay bar, and Michael will have to look for work.
Neighbors on Mountain Avenue say late-night revelry hasn’t changed in eight years. But Michael says both customers and drinking are down. So is sexual misconduct, since management installed brighter lights in the black-walled dancing room.
Still, he says, for some unknown reason, there is no longer a condom machine in the bathroom. And, really, no one except tourists read the safe-sex brochures stuffed below the bulletin board.
Instead, it is filled with ads for roommates and massages.
Over them, someone’s friend has tacked up a torn piece of legal paper with a neatly penciled note. It announces a memorial service. Directions to Fisherman’s Cove and a time are given.
“Please,” it says, “don’t wear black.”