Hansen: Life of loss and humor in Laguna

There is a frailty about Scott Alan when he walks. Unsure and stilted, he totters in a way that makes you prepare to reach out and catch him if he falls.

But he never does. He keeps moving forward, shuffling along in no particular hurry.

"I walk like a drunk," he says, smiling. "I tell people my feet are lushes."

It's not booze; it's the HIV drugs. They wreak havoc on his feet, which is why he prefers to go barefoot.

"Except I sometimes walk on grass and it feels like razor blades," he said.

Tall and rail thin, Alan, 58, is a long-time survivor of AIDS, Hodgkin's lymphoma, prejudice and loneliness.

He's a veteran Laguna Beach gay man who lost most of his friends to AIDS. He still struggles to find new meaning, hiding behind humor and a sharp wit.

In the early 1980s when AIDS started hitting Laguna Beach in force, Alan's friends would sit around living rooms, bars and beaches speculating what was happening.

"We asked, 'What is the common denominator of all gay men?' he said. "Track lights."

The joke is still funny, in a self-effacing way. That's common with Alan.

In private moments, he wonders how he arrived in Hagan Place, the 24-unit, federally subsidized housing complex on Third Street that shelters only people with HIV. With rents less than half the market rate, there's a long waiting list.

Alan got his one bedroom in 1999 but first moved to Laguna in 1976. Not much later, people started dying.

In the '80s and '90s, Laguna Beach had the highest per capita HIV infection rate in the country, higher than San Francisco.

Even today, the number of HIV infections is rising nationwide, making the city's history still very real. According to the Centers for Disease Control, every month, 1,000 young Americans become infected with HIV.

In fact, Alan said, one of his Hagan neighbors died Sunday of cancer related to HIV. The man had a live-in partner and liked to give out homemade tamales for Christmas.

This type of news won't make headlines anymore because gay issues in Laguna have gone underground, Alan said. People have retreated behind closed doors.

"It upsets me," he said. "People still think it's not affecting them, but it does."

Despite the continuing loss and lack of a cure, Alan remains oddly sanguine. His humor is like armor after a lifetime of heartache. Nothing has gone as expected, so why not embrace every day?

"My sense of humor is what gets me through life," he said. "These are triple bonus years for me."

Disarmingly charming, he keeps quips at the ready. He knows there's immediate acceptance, which he rarely got growing up.

In Ponca City, Okla., he believed he would die a teenager, most likely beaten. Ponca City, whose nickname was "built on oil, soil and toil," is about 100 miles from nowhere. The closest real city is Tulsa.

As a Ponca City High School Wildcat, Alan had to endure the paralyzing fear of being a closet homosexual in a red state.

Take wrestling, for example. There was nothing worse than rolling around with other lithe young men, then trying to hide your erection, Alan said.

"I would lie flat on my stomach a lot until I could get up."

He smiled wryly at the memory.

Alan left right after high school, leaving two older sisters, and didn't look back much.

Arriving in Laguna, he fell in love for the first time. It was 1983 when he had his first real, passionate lover. And 10 years later, that lover would die of AIDS.

Alan assumes that's where he got it.

Unlike many others, Alan wasn't promiscuous during that heyday of ignorance and bliss. He was just a sweet blond kid from Oklahoma. If anything, he's become more flamboyant with age, at least with his appearance. Always with his beloved dachshund, Alan now has foppish, punk hair — part bleached, part shaved.

He has piercings throughout and splattered, wizened tattoos, including large portraits of pets that have passed.

Underneath everything, however, he's still soft-spoken and consciously polite.

He was a hairstylist most of his life and good at it. When he found out he had HIV in 1989, he was living in Seattle, owned a hair salon and was finishing his AA in interior design.

The news derailed him.

He forced himself to continue college, but he was a wreck. He used to sit near the front of the class, joking with the teacher and other students. But on his first day after the news, he sat in the back of the room crying.

In his own way, he pulled himself together and started making jokes again, trying to see the silver lining.

"I laughed about not having to pay back my student loans," he said, succumbing to the commonly held belief that HIV was a death sentence.

After the diagnosis, he tried to sell the salon to simplify his life. It was a profitable salon with four stations. On a Saturday, he approached the other stylists and offered to sell them the salon for a reasonable price.

The next Tuesday, they all quit in unison, fearing no customers would want to get their hair done at an "AIDS salon."

He eventually sold it, though, moved to San Francisco for a while, got married (briefly) to the second love of his life, and then was told another round of bad news.

He was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and AIDS in 1995, and the doctors immediately started him on chemotherapy.

And it worked. He's been in remission for 18 years.

But it wasn't until 2005 that he finally started on HIV drugs for the first time. Before then, he just took a variety of herbs and Eastern treatments.

He was afraid of the side effects of Western medicine, heard horror stories and didn't want to feel like a guinea pig.

"I didn't want to schedule my life around drugs. I'd rather be dead than have a heavy drug regimen."

By this time, however, because of the medical advances, he did not have to take as much, just two drugs (four pills) once a day. Reyataz and Truvada. Both drugs come in big blue capsules, like horse pills, and they cost about $1,200 a bottle without insurance.

Relying only on disability checks, there would be no way Alan could pay for his medicine without insurance.

As it is, he only gets by.

People give him stuff, which he relishes. His apartment is stuffed with artwork, knickknacks and mementos. He admits it borders on hoarding but everything has a story, including the stacks of old VHS tapes.

"There's really good movies in there when I can find them. I was looking for 'Slaughterhouse Five' the other day but couldn't find it."

He is proud of some of his vinyl albums, including a 1980 Split Enz "True Colors" LP with laser etching, a technological novelty at the time.

He has an affinity for aliens, Pee-wee Herman and filmmaker John Waters.

Political buttons, gay pride stickers, half-finished art projects, grunge CDs … the piles of his life surround him like constant reminders of a random, mysterious journey.

It's comforting to him.

He also knows there are regrets, things that happened which should not have happened. He wishes some people could have said yes instead of no.

He tried to volunteer once for a Big Brothers chapter in Marin County.

"They didn't want me because of my HIV. I was horrified."

He wanted to give something back, some little piece of wisdom. He had learned so much.

The reason they said no was that they didn't want a boy to become attached to someone who was going to die.

That was then. There was fear and assumptions.

Now Alan doesn't assume much because there's nothing extraordinary to worry about.

He doesn't follow the daily headlines about HIV research.

He doesn't fret over homophobia and reality TV shows.

Instead, he wears shorts in cold weather with funny T-shirts and an official Disneyland jacket. On the back in big letters is "Grumpy."

The irony is he's not grumpy. On the outside at least, he's cheerful and engaging.

"I'm not grumpy but my coat is," he says. "I'm happier than all the rich people I know."

What he's learned is it's OK to let go.

He tries not to dwell on his HIV. Mostly, he forgets about it.

But he knows he's different, even for Laguna. He likes it that way.

The struggle now is companionship. He will be 59 next month, and it's been years since he's dated. He knows he's alone.

But he's ready for something because it's another day.

He's survived. He has his life.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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