Blue sky and brilliant October sun betrayed our expectations as we somberly walked the Melrose border of the Pacific Design Center that Sunday morning. We were on our way to see the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Climbing the steps, I heard a shout. A white sedan pulled up, passenger window lowered, and a starry-eyed woman barely 20 waved me over.
"Where's that apartment building they feature on 'Melrose Place'?" Her chipper Midwestern politeness was edgy. "We've been driving up and down here for hours and can't find it." Behind the steering wheel, an older man shvitzed in his shirt-sleeves, maps strewn across the seat. My husband and son waited as I skittered curbside. "Welcome to Hollywood," I smirked. "It's all an illusion. Sorry."
She blanched. He shot her a sweaty leer, hit the accelerator, made a U-turn and sped east. This incident was an ironic preface--reminder of how make-believe and denial shape our geographical/emotional terrain.
Two days earlier, I had visited the Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. The black granite wing rose regally from the earth. Young women and children mounted the patient shoulders of men, boys and determined older women to make frottages, or rubbings of names on paper. Along the base, there were dried, dying and fresh bouquets, along with poems, letters and diaries laid open. Public contemplation and private introspection were accentuated by muted weeping or an excited "I found him!"
Now, barely 32 hours later, we wandered toward the PDC info desk. At site center lay a canvas of signatures that read "People Do Care." Encouraged to view the new panels that would be added to the quilt in an afternoon dedication ceremony, we hurried over to glance at them. Giddy with jet lag, I tripped over my own feet and stepped on one. I looked down and into a familiar face.
An ex-colleague smiled up from his modest panel, graced by a few elegiac lines by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Twenty years had passed since we'd last met over lunch at The Old World, a defunct '70s Hollywood hang.
"There's Rico! I know Rico!"
During the escalator ride to the main exhibit, I looked over my shoulder into a large room housing the panel-making workshop. Workers busily selected fabrics, laid out patterns and stencils, fashioned decorations, ornaments and trim, leaned over sewing machines. We stepped through an improvised rest area and into a dazzling maze of approximately 1,600 panels, a fraction of the total of more than 24,000. Volunteer readers intoned a melancholy litany of names.
Some panels were painfully humble; others, works of art. In between were the homespun, the kitschy, the outrageous. Some gave only a first name; others provided histories. A few were nameless.
By midafternoon, we were drunk on grief expressed in a multicolored blaze of styles, textures, icons, military emblems, flags and themes from the comically irreverent to the sacred. Quilt flora included the tree of life, century plants and long-stemmed roses. Among the fauna were favorite pets, butterflies and spiders, rattlers and asps, koalas and teddy bears, unicorns and griffins. There were champagne glasses, dancing silhouettes, dress shirts, high heels, PJs and zippers.
Some were unforgettable, like the one for a black dentist who grinned toothily at us from inside a giant molar. The panel for one single mother was signed by each orphaned child. Some bristled with rage, screamed "murdered by AIDS" or declared "I have done nothing wrong. I am not worthless. I do mean something."
After experiencing the abstract, stony, dignified permanence of the tribute to the dead and missing in Southeast Asia, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is an eerily fluid and overwhelming testament. It is a living thing. And it continues its relentless growth, fed by the fear and denial of those who'd rather make-believe it doesn't exist.